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Bush: Women, freedom key to Mideast prosperity

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  • Israeli-Palestinian peace deal possible by year's end, Bush tells leaders
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  • Bush counsels Arab states to "move past their old resentments against Israel"
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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (CNN) -- President Bush told Arab and Middle Eastern leaders Sunday what they must do to advance their nations: Empower women, release political prisoners, foster free trade, repudiate terrorism and defend freedoms of speech and religion.

President George Bush addresses Arab and Middle Eastern leaders Sunday in Egypt.

"Nations across the region have an opportunity to move forward with bold and confident reforms -- and lead the Middle East to its rightful place as a center of progress and achievement," Bush told leaders convening at the World Economic Forum.

Bush spoke in the Red Sea resort city on the last leg of his five-day Mideast tour, aimed primarily at advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and at tackling soaring gasoline prices.

Though Bush said Saturday that a Saudi increase in oil would not solve U.S. energy woes, he was optimistic Sunday about developments on the peace front.

"We must stand with the Palestinian people, who have suffered for decades and earned the right to a homeland of their own," he said. "A peace agreement is in the Palestinians' interest, it is in Israel's interest, it is in Arab states' interest, and it is in the world's interest. And I firmly believe that with leadership and courage, we can reach that peace agreement this year." Watch Bush meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak »

The onus falls on everyone involved, Bush said: Israel must make sacrifices and ease restrictions on Palestinians; Palestinians must shun terror and "build the institutions of a free and peaceful society;" and Arab nations must invest in the Palestinian people and "move past their old resentments against Israel."

There is growing skepticism that such a deal can be reached in the next seven months. Aside from the historical animosities between Israelis and Palestinians, both of their leaders are in weak positions. Watch a wrap-up of Bush's trip »

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's approval ratings are in the doldrums as he faces multiple police investigations into allegations of fraud or corruption. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas leads a divided people. His Fatah-led government has not been able to extend its mandate into Gaza, which remains under the firm grip of Hamas.

Bush's take on the peace process marked a theme in his Sunday remarks, as the president called on regional leaders to embrace democracy and freedom and to diversify their often oilcentric economies amid widespread initiatives to develop alternative sources of fuel.

The U.S. will continue to forge bilateral free trade agreements like the ones it has in place with Jordan, Oman, Morocco and Bahrain, Bush said, but social freedoms are just as important to prosperity as relaxing tariffs and courting investment.

"Expanding freedom is vital to turning temporary wealth into lasting prosperity," he said. "Free societies stimulate competition in the marketplace. Free societies give people access to the information they need to make informed and responsible decisions. And free societies give citizens the rule of law, which exposes corruption and builds confidence in the future."

Though he touched on many issues of reform, Bush spent extra time discussing women's rights and political freedom.

"Building powerful economies also requires expanding the role of women in society," he said. "This is a matter of morality and of basic math. No nation that cuts off half its population from opportunities will be as productive or prosperous as it could be."

As for political freedom, Bush said the U.S. is alarmed by the plight of political prisoners, as well as by the intimidation and oppression that activists, journalists and dissidents experience.

"Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail," Bush said. "I call on all nations in this region to release their prisoners of conscience, open up their political debate and trust their people to chart their future."

Bush called on the leaders to build on the "hopeful beginnings" of democracy in the region that he said were exemplified by Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

"We have seen the stirrings of reform from Morocco and Algeria to Jordan and the Gulf States," Bush told the World Economic Forum on the Middle East. "America appreciates the challenges facing the Middle East. Yet we also appreciate that the light of liberty is beginning to shine."

Bush denounced terrorist groups as "spoilers who stand in the way" of the region's movement toward democracy and prosperity.

"Terrorist organizations and their state sponsors know that they cannot survive in a free society, so they create chaos and take innocent lives in an effort to stop democracy from taking root," he said. "Every nation committed to freedom and progress in the Middle East must stand together to defeat them."

He referred to the recent fighting in Lebanon, a country which remains locked in a political power struggle between supporters of the Western-backed government and those who support the Hezbollah-led opposition.

Bush blamed Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group reportedly backed by Iran and Syria, for "taking up arms against the Lebanese people."

Bush also reiterated his call to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

"Every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in opposing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions," Bush said. "To allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to gain the world's deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations."

Bush plans to return to the region in October, according to U.S. administration officials familiar with the matter. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley would only say that Bush plans to return "when there is work for him to do to advance the process."

CNN Correspondent Aneesh Raman contributed to this report.

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