By BILL STRAUB
Scripps Howard News Service
April 10, 2005
Bush, heading to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, after attending the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Vatican City, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Friday that he already has raised the issue of settlement expansion and that the road map "has clear obligations on settlements and that we expect the prime minister to adhere to those road-map obligations."
Sharon is headed to Crawford to engage in high-level talks with the president on Monday. The Bush administration is optimistic about the new opportunity for peace in the perennially divided region, and doesn't want Israeli expansion plans to cloud the possibility.
In April 2004, Bush met with Sharon in Washington and agreed to a plan that would lead to withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, a process scheduled to get under way in July, along with four West Bank settlements. Other currently existing West Bank settlements were permitted to remain under the proposal, reversing formal U.S. policy that once found them to be an obstacle to peace.
Ultimately, the plan is intended to realize the vision of two states existing side-by-side.
Now Israel is considering a major expansion of a West Bank settlement outside of Jerusalem, Maale Adumim, by adding more than 3,500 housing units. In doing so, Israel would cut off those Palestinians in the West Bank from a section of East Jerusalem the authority intends to establish as its capital.
The United States maintains that the expansion plan runs counter to the road map and that the concept has raised Palestinian ire, creating yet another hurdle to peace. Israel insists it has a right to strengthen the existing settlements.
Bush wants to stick to the U.S. interpretation of the plan, saying "the world has a great opportunity to help a democracy grow - begin and grow, starting in the Gaza."
"The prime minister of Israel has decided to pull out of Gaza," Bush said. "As you know, 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 Bush administration is stepping up its involvement, sensing that the new Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, is more willing to address the situation than Abbas' predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat. Bush is expected to meet with Abbas in Washington next month.
Bush said he also intends to speak with Sharon about establishing a smooth transition when Israeli territory is turned over to the Palestinians. The president said that more enhanced security in Gaza is required.
"We need to have institution-building, and there needs to be an international effort that encourages and fosters economic vitality so that a government which does emerge in Gaza will be able to better speak to the hopes of those who live in the Gaza," Bush said.
"And success in the Gaza will make success on the West Bank easier. And so one of our _ I will be talking to the prime minister about the need to work with the Palestinian government, President Abbas, to facilitate success, to enhance success."