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Sharon set for Bush Texas ranch welcome
Updated: 2005-04-10 14:36

Israeli leader Ariel Sharon headed on Sunday for a visit to George W. Bush's Texas ranch, where presidential support for a Gaza pullout seemed likely to outweigh differences over West Bank settlement growth.

It will be the prime minister's 10th trip to the United States since taking office in 2001 but his first taste of homestead hospitality Bush reserves for his most favored foreign guests. Sharon also owns a ranch, near the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said they expected Bush to reaffirm at the meeting in Crawford on Monday his strong backing for the Gaza withdrawal slated for July, the first removal of Jewish settlements from occupied land Palestinians want for a state.

Clearing political hurdles at home to the pullout, Sharon frequently cited Bush's assurances during his previous U.S. trip last April that Israel would not be expected to give up some large West Bank settlement blocs in future peace deals.

But Sharon went a step too far for Washington by pledging last week to press ahead with construction of 3,500 homes for Israelis in a narrow corridor between the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim and Jerusalem.

Palestinians fear the Maale Adumim project would largely cut off the West Bank, which would form the bulk of a future state, from the eastern Arab part of Jerusalem, which they want as its capital -- a demand Israel rejects.

Asked if he would raise the issue of settlement expansion during their talks, Bush said on Friday: "You bet."

"What I say publicly, I say privately," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned from Pope John Paul's funeral. "And that is the road map has clear obligations on settlements, and that we expect the prime minister to adhere to those road map obligations."

Bush was referring to the Middle East peace plan he has backed which calls for a freeze of Israeli "settlement activity" as part of mutual steps with the Palestinians leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Despite U.S. misgivings at the Maale Adumim project, Bush stopped short of criticizing it directly and praised Sharon.

"The prime minister of Israel has decided to pull out of Gaza," he said. "I applauded that decision at the White House, with him standing by my side. And I think now is the time to focus the world's attention on what is possible."


The meeting will give the two leaders an opportunity to talk face-to-face for the first time about prospects for peace since the death in November of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his replacement by moderate Mahmoud Abbas.

"I will be talking to the prime minister about the need to work with the Palestinian government ... to facilitate success, to enhance success," Bush said on Air Force One.

Sharon and Abbas declared a cease-fire in February. But its prospects were hurt on Saturday when Israeli troops killed three Palestinians in Gaza, drawing militant mortar fire on Jewish settlements. Fearing a flare-up, Israel banned a rightist Jewish march planned for a flashpoint Jerusalem shrine on Sunday.

Sharon has demanded stronger action by the Palestinian president to disarm militants, another road map requirement.

"There are issues that I want clarifications on," Sharon said last Monday. He cited Iran's suspected nuclear arms program, events in Lebanon and the "situation with the Palestinians" as subjects for discussion with the president.

Hoping to keep the Maale Adumim dispute from clouding the summit, Israeli diplomats were quick to note that no building was imminent under the plan.

"The impression I got is that the United States decided unequivocally to ensure the Gaza evacuation is completed and not allow any other matter to cloud, sideline or interfere with the issue," Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said on Friday after talks in Washington with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Sharon's sudden emphasis on Maale Adumim, first proposed more than a decade ago and where some 30,000 settlers live, was widely seen in Israel as an attempt to mollify rightist opponents of the Gaza pullout.

But he has made clear repeatedly that while quitting impoverished Gaza, he intends to cement Israel's control over large swathes of West Bank land where the vast majority of 240,000 settlers reside.

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