US concerns - which Bush has said he plans to raise with Sharon - about a project still in its preliminary stages to expand a major Jewish settlement in the West Bank, could inject a rare note of discord into talks between the two allies. 

But US and Israeli officials played down any notion Bush would on Monday try to sour Sharon's first taste of homestead hospitality at the presidential spread in Crawford, a visit capping a year of political fighting in Israel for the Gaza plan's survival. 

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya called on the US president to pressure Sharon to stop buildings settlements and judaizing Jerusalem.

 

Quraya told reporters after meeting an EU envoy that Bush should put pressure on Sharon to stop expandings colonies in the occupied territories.

An outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip over the weekend could provide the backdrop for Sharon to try to focus the summit on his bedrock demand, echoed by Washington, that Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas should do more to rein in resistance fighters. 

"They are pointing a gun to [Abbas'] head," a senior Israeli
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said about
Palestinian resistance groups that fired dozens of mortar bombs at Jewish settlements in Gaza over the weekend. 

Escalation in violence

The violence was the most serious in the area since Abbas and Sharon declared a ceasefire at a summit in Sharm al-Shaikh, Egypt, in February. The attacks followed the killing of three unarmed Palestinian youths by Israeli troops in southern Gaza.

"Abbas is weak. He needs assistance, but you can only help someone who helps himself"

Senior Israeli official

"The firing [of the mortars] was a flagrant violation of the understanding achieved at Sharm al-Shaikh and it will be a central issue to be raised in my talks with President Bush," an aide quoted Sharon as saying on the flight to Texas on Sunday. 

"Abbas is weak. He needs assistance, but you can only help someone who helps himself," added a senior Israeli official. 

Promoting his plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank, Sharon often cited Bush's assurances during his previous US trip last April that Israel would not be expected to give up some large West Bank settlement blocs in future peace deals. 

But Sharon appeared to go a step too far for Washington by pledging last week to press ahead with construction of 3500 homes for Israelis in a narrow corridor between the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim and Jerusalem.

Heavy security

Sharon's hotel in Waco, about 40km from Bush's ranch, was surrounded by a tight cordon of security with large trucks blocking intersections. 

Sharon (R) has already met Rice
at his hotel

Late on Sunday, he met US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the hotel to prepare for the morning meeting with the president. 

Israeli officials said they expected Bush to reaffirm his strong backing for the Gaza withdrawal set for July, the first removal of Jewish settlements from occupied land Palestinians want for a state. 

Bush is also expected to tell Sharon there can be no expansion of Jewish settlements under the US-backed Middle East road map peace plan. 

It 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. 

Israeli officials rushed to assure the US there would be no new work at Maale Adumim for at least two years.

"It must stop," Vice-Premier Shimon Peres told Israel's Army Radio, referring to the settlement plan. "Until the end of the Gaza process, I think we should not be making more problems." 

'Important visit'

"With no doubt, Sharon's visit to the US is very important," chief Palestinian megotiator Saib Uraiqat told Aljazeera. Sharon would want to tell Bush that Abbas did not do what was required of him, which was halting the violence.

"In addition, Sharon will tell Bush that Maale Adumim settlement should be joined to Israel," Uraiqat said, adding that the Israeli government would consider a withdrawal from Gaza and northern West Bank only, and nothing would happen after that for years.

"This will lead to an endless crisis," he said. 

"Sharon intends to cancel the issues of Jerusalem, the refugees and the borders. This will put us in a new transitional stage by considering a state with temporary borders," Uraiqat said.