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Bush Tells Malaysian Prime Minister Speeches Against Jews Are ‘Divisive’

By David E. Sanger

The New York Times -- BANGKOK, Thailand

President Bush ran into Malaysia’s pugnacious prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, at the opening of the Asian summit meeting on Monday afternoon, and told him privately that he was “wrong and divisive” when he declared last week that Jews ran the world by proxy, the White House said on Monday night.

Then Bush, who rarely recounts his private conversations with other world leaders, sent his press secretary out to report the encounter in detail. This included Bush’s declaration to the Malaysian leader that “It stands squarely against what I believe in.”

It was a strange and highly choreographed encounter, another twist in an up-and-down relationship. For four days after Mahathir spun out his strange theory of how Jews survived extinction -- and then went on to succeed at the expense of Muslims -- Bush was silent on the subject, even as Italy, Australia and other countries condemned the 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 terrorism.

In fact, Malaysia has often been 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. Bush began to sour on Mahathir earlier this year, though, when he declared that invading Iraq would be a racist attack on a Muslim state.

But by the time Bush landed in this jammed capital for a state visit and the two-day annual summit meeting, it became clear, White House officials said, that the President could no longer be silent. So Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, told reporters on Monday 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.

But as Bush prepares on Wednesday to drop in, for three hours, on the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, some White House officials are clearly concerned that Mahathir’s speech on Thursday may have had considerable resonance. It received a standing ovation from Muslim leaders of many nations, including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, who were attending the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world’s largest Muslim group.

“Clearly, we had to respond,” a White House official said on Monday. “But the president wanted to do it in a quiet way, without further public embarrassment for Mahathir.”