Bush confronts Malaysian PM over his comments on Jews

President says remarks were `wrong and divisive'

October 21, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BANGKOK, Thailand - President Bush ran into Malaysia's pugnacious prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, at the opening of the Asian summit meeting yesterday and told him privately that Mahathir had been "wrong and divisive" when he declared last week that Jews run the world by proxy, the White House said.

Then Bush, who rarely recounts his private conversations with other world leaders, sent his spokesman to tell reporters about the encounter, including Bush's declaration to the Malaysian leader that the theme of Mahathir's remarks "stands squarely against what I believe in."

It was a strange, if highly choreographed, encounter with one of Asia's longest-serving leaders. For four days after Mahathir spun out his theory of why Jews had survived extinction and then gone on to succeed at the expense of Muslims, Bush was silent on the matter, even as other countries condemned the prime minister's speech as offensive and anti-Semitic.

Mahathir is retiring in a few months, and it seemed that the White House had decided not to pick an open fight with a prickly leader whom Bush praised in the Oval Office last year as a strong ally in the campaign against terror.

In fact, last year Bush allowed Mahathir to rehabilitate his image in the United States, based on his cooperation in tracking down terrorists.

A year ago, Malaysia was often cited by administration officials as an exemplary moderate Islamic nation, even if it was run by a man who once blamed the 1997 Asian financial crisis on the Jews and often claimed that Western-style democracy would be a disaster in the developing world. But Bush began to sour on him this year when Mahathir declared that invading Iraq would be a racist attack on a Muslim state.

By the time Bush landed in this crowded capital of Thailand for a state visit and the two-day annual summit meeting, it became clear, White House officials said, that the president could no longer stay silent about Mahathir's remarks. So the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told reporters yesterday that "everyone thinks the comments were hateful; they are outrageous," and that Bush regarded them as "reprehensible."

"I don't think they are emblematic of the Muslim world," she said.

Mahathir knew that his comments last week at the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference would gain considerable circulation. There were cameras in the room, recording his farewell speech to the group. It included these words: "The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."

He seemed at some points to be saying that Muslims should learn from the success of the Jewish people. But later he added that "1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews."

Mahathir told Bush that he had been quoted out of context. His foreign minister, Syed Hamid, later told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that the speech was more critical of Muslims than of Jews, and that only "one or two portions" had been problematic. He also reportedly said that Malaysia, perhaps the greatest high-technology success story in the Muslim world, would not contribute significantly to Iraqi reconstruction.

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