Instead, they argued the administration’s strong support of Israel made it difficult to undertake political reform or to stop extremists driven by hatred of U.S. policies.

“Let us face it,” said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal. “We perceive no clashes of civilization or competing value systems. The real bone of contention is the longest conflict in modern history.”

The unusually frank comments were made in a conference session that was supposed to have been closed to the news media.

But delegates’ words were inadvertently piped to reporters in a nearby media centre.

President George W Bush has said establishing greater democracy in the Middle East would be a central goal of his second term.

But after Arab backlash to the idea, the focus of the conference, officially known as the “Forum for the Future”, was watered down to focus mostly on economic liberalisation.

US officials in the past have rejected a link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political reform in the Middle East.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell made that point again as he flew to Rabat.

“We can’t keep pointing to the Middle East peace process as the reason we don’t undertake reform efforts that are needed by these nations,” he told reporters travelling with him.

Later at a news conference, Mr Powell acknowledged that progress in Middle East peace process would help with political reform.

“But we are not sitting here today saying no reform until that is resolved,” he said.

But other Arab officials echoed Prince Saud’s remarks or brought up the US war in Iraq, which is also deeply unpopular in the region.

The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, attributed insecurity in the region to the stagnation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Libya’s representative, deputy foreign minister Hassouna Shawish, said “continued bloodshed makes it difficult for us all. I’m talking about bloodshed in Iraq.”

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