President George Bush has said he will tell Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon privately what he has been saying publicly: There can be no expansion of Jewish settlements under the US-backed Middle East peace plan.
"You bet," Bush said on Friday when asked if he would raise the issue on Monday when he meets with Sharon at his Texas ranch.
"What I say publicly, I say privately," Bush said aboard Air Force One as he returned from Pope John Paul II'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."
Israeli officials have sought to reassure Washington about plans to build 3500 homes between the major West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim and Jerusalem. The proposal has angered Palestinian leaders, who warn it could derail peace talks.
While senior US officials have expressed concerns about the Maale Adumim project, Bush stopped short of criticising 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."
"I will be talking to the prime minister about the need to work with the Palestinian government ... to facilitate success, to enhance success"
Bush pointed out that the Palestinians also had obligations under the peace plan and urged all sides to cooperate, saying: "We have a great opportunity - 'we,' the world, has a great opportunity to help a democracy grow, begin and grow, starting in the Gaza.
"I will be talking to the prime minister about the need to work with the Palestinian government to facilitate success, to enhance success," he said.
Pressing for sacrifices
The settlement issue threatened to be the only sticking point in talks between Bush and Sharon at the president's ranch in Crawford.
"My position is clear," said Bush, who has pledged to press Israel to make sacrifices to bolster peace talks after the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
Bush says he has made his
position clear to Sharon (L)
Palestinians fear the Maale Adumim project will cut them off from the eastern part of the city they want as the capital of a future state.
Sharon thinks an extension of Israel's biggest settlement, home to 30,000 people, is in line with Bush's assurance to him last year that the Jewish state could expect to keep some large settlement blocs under a final peace accord.
Bush, who has made Middle East peace a top second-term priority, has endorsed Sharon's plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 in the West Bank, a pullout now scheduled to begin on 20 July.