Arab leaders rebuked the United States yesterday for its policy toward Israel, saying U.S. efforts to curb Islamic extremism and promote democracy in the Middle East could not...

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RABAT, Morocco — Arab leaders rebuked the United States yesterday for its policy toward Israel, saying U.S. efforts to curb Islamic extremism and promote democracy in the Middle East could not be taken seriously because of its one-sided stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


“Let us face it … the real bone of contention is the longest conflict in modern history. For too long, the Arabs have witnessed the Western bias toward Israel,” Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, told a U.S.-sponsored conference here on political and economic reform.


The Bush administration wanted to keep the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from clouding the “Forum for the Future,” contending countries could modernize and fight terrorism independently of whether there was progress toward a settlement.


But the issue came up in speech after speech, underscoring the deep differences between Arab governments and the Bush administration over the causes of the region’s problems, especially growing Islamic extremism.


Afterward, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the United States was using the “opportunity” created by the recent death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to re-energize the moribund peace process.


But a final communique, accepted by Powell as co-chair of the session, said that participants’ support for regional reform “will go hand in hand with their support for a just, comprehensive and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”


The communique made clear participants would not rush into overhauling systems that sustain many autocratic Arab regimes, reaffirming that it is “the sovereign right of each country … to freely develop its own democratic political and socio-cultural system,” free from “interference … from outside.”


Iran, a key regional power and backer of extremist Palestinian groups, boycotted the conference. Not invited were Israel, one of the region’s few democracies, and Sudan, accused by Washington of committing genocide in the Darfur region.


The session was part of a broader Middle East and North Africa initiative launched by President Bush in June at a summit of the world’s wealthiest nations to find ways in which wealthier nations and international institutions can promote change as a way of attacking problems that breed Islamic extremism.


The conference was attended by some 20 Arab countries, the world’s eight leading industrialized countries, the European Union, Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan.


Bringing governments from across the Muslim world to the same table was a significant achievement at a time of widespread hostility toward the Bush administration for its policy toward Israel and its invasion of Iraq.


But the decisions — aid for literacy programs, a $100 million initiative to support small businesses and a dialogue with civic groups — were vastly scaled back from Bush’s original goal of using the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to promote sweeping democratic change in the region.


Opening the session, Powell sought to ease widespread concerns that the U.S. initiative was really an attempt to promote U.S. political ideas and interests.


“We all agree that effective and sustainable change can only come from within,” he said.


But he exhorted Arab countries to stop stalling reforms. “Political and economic freedom go hand in hand,” he said. “All of us confront the daily threat of terrorism. To defeat the murderous extremists in our midst, we must work together to address the causes of despair and frustration that extremists exploit for their own use.”

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, while saying that extremism must be fought, linked reforms to a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Arabs understand U.S. security guarantees for Israel, he said. “What the Arab peoples cannot fathom is why these guarantees are transformed into unrestricted backing of unrestrained Israeli policies contrary to international legality,” he said.


He said that the “beast of extremism, terrorism and hatred remains with us because we are not true to our commitments. It remains to be seen whether we can for the first time be honest with each other and commit ourselves to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.”