SEA ISLAND, June 7: Arab governments should not use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse to avoid implementing democratic reforms, a senior Bush administration official said on Monday.

The United States plans to use a Group of Eight industrial nations summit it is hosting this week to push its case for political and economic reforms in the Middle East, but many Arab leaders believe resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the region's top priority.

The U.S. official, whose remarks implicitly acknowledged the intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was speaking ahead of the summit to which several leaders from the Middle East have been invited for talks on Wednesday.

At the same time, the White House expressed hope that the approval by Israel's cabinet on Sunday of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to begin preparing for "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank would eventually lead to a promised withdrawal.

"We urge the Israelis to finish their preparatory work as quickly as possible," said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. She took a wait-and-see attitude toward a letter Palestinian President Yasser Arafat wrote to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak saying he accepted Mubarak's demand for Palestinian security reforms as a condition for Egypt to help stabilize Gaza if Israelis withdraw.

"I don't know what to make of the statement, but I hope it's a step in the right direction," Rice said. The senior administration official, briefing reporters about President George W. Bush's Middle East initiative, said peace between Israelis and Palestinians should be pursued on its own merits.

"But we are not accepting the notion that that's an excuse for failure to reform elsewhere," the official said. Whether there is a Middle East peace deal, he said, "should not provide an excuse for some government 500 or 1,000 miles away to arrest a newspaper editor or imprison an opponent of an opposition political party."

Many Arabs are deeply skeptical of U.S. policy in the Middle East given the Iraq war and are bitter about Washington's pro-Israeli position. Some have condemned the U.S. reform initiative as an attempt to impose policy on them.

The G8 leaders, meeting at the posh Sea Island resort on the humid Georgia coast, will meet leaders from Afghanistan, Bahrain, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen to discuss the Middle East initiative.

Leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco were invited as well, but all had excuses for declining the invitation. Mubarak declined because he had recently been on a U.S. trip to meet Bush and Morocco's King Mohammed already had another visit to the United States scheduled, the U.S. official said.

The senior administration official sought to dispel any notion that the United States had to water down the Middle East reform document to take account of realities in the region.

"We've seen an awful lot of news stories suggesting that the goal of democracy, discussion of freedom and human rights, has somehow been compromised in the final documents," the official said. "That's just not so. The political statement is full of mention of democracy and freedom and human rights." -Reuters

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