President Bush yesterday told students in Israel he hasn’t done enough to dispel the idea that the United States is at war with Islam, but also blamed the “poisonous” state-run TV stations in the Middle East for mischaracterizing him.
During an extended conversation with about 12 college and high school students under an olive tree in Jerusalem, the issue of diplomacy arose, and Mr. Bush launched into a defense of his attitude toward Muslims.
“Somebody said to me, ‘Well, how come you dislike Muslims?’” Mr. Bush said. “I don’t.”
But then a young Palestinian Christian woman, Henriette Charcar, spoke up.
“I think it comes out that you don’t like Muslims because in most of your speeches you do tend to relate extremism to Muslims,” said Miss Charcar, who attends the Tabitha school in Jaffa.
Mr. Bush responded: “Actually what I say is you’re not a religious person if you’re a murderer. But you’re right. I’ve got to do a better job of making it clear when I talk about Islam, I talk about a peaceful religion, which I talk about a lot.”
The president often says that Muslims and Christians pray to the same god, which has angered some in the president’s most loyal constituency of evangelical Christians.
Within hours of the exchange Mr. Bush had before leaving Israel after three days of celebrating the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary, al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden issued his second message this year in which he claimed the Palestinian cause as his own and mocked peace talks.
“The Palestinian cause is the major issue for my [Islamic] nation. It was an important element in fueling me from the beginning and the 19 others,” bin Laden said, referring to the Muslim terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mr. Bush, speaking to the group of young Jews, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and one Ethiopian immigrant outside the Bible Lands Museum, said the major obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the refusal by some to accept a Jewish state.
He also argued that “there is a propaganda machine on state-owned TV that is poisonous and we just have got to do a better job of reaching out.”
“One way to do it, by the way, is to invite people to America and let them see what America is all about,” he said.
The Bush administration has pushed for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on what a permanent Palestinian state would look like, and both groups agreed last fall to aim for a deal by the end of Mr. Bush’s term. But the odds of that happening seem to grow longer by the day.
In a 10-minute audiotape released on a Web site often used by al Qaeda, bin Laden ridiculed the idea of a peace deal.
“Peace talks that started 60 years ago are just meant to deceive the idiots,” bin Laden said.
“We will continue our struggle against the Israelis and their allies. We are not going to give up an inch of the land of Palestine,” he said.
Mr. Bush’s comment about Middle East TV stations reveals the level of animosity toward networks such as Qatar-based al Jazeera, which is the most popular outlet in the Middle East and is often used as a megaphone by bin Laden and al Qaeda, which regularly sends the network video and audiotapes. Al Jazeera and other Arab TV stations also regularly incite anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiment.
The U.S. government in 2004 launched their own Middle East TV station, al Hurrah, in an effort to counter Arab-run TV stations. Al Jazeera has started an English-language channel in the U.S.
The president’s conversation with the students, with first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also at the table, was light at moments.
When he was told young people don’t go to dances together, Mr. Bush looked surprised.
“No dances?” he said, prompting Richard Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, to remark that the local cultures are more conservative than America.
The young people, however, expressed gratitude for the president’s willingness to talk with them.
“Thanks a lot for coming here today,” said Miss Charcar, the young woman who had challenged Mr. Bush on his relations with the Muslim world.
After finishing his discussion with the students, the president departed Israel for Saudi Arabia, where he held meetings and ate dinner with King Abdullah at the king’s horse ranch in Al Janadriyah.
Today, he will head to Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, where he will meet with heads of state from several Middle East countries, along with Palestinian leaders.