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Bush, Sharon Discuss Settlements and Gaza Pull Out

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Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives in the United States for his meeting Monday with President Bush
President Bush says the international community has a great opportunity to help a democratic Palestinian state begin to grow in Gaza.

He says he and Prime Minister Sharon will discuss the Israeli plan to remove settlements from Gaza during Monday's talks at the Bush ranch in nearby Prairie Chapel, which will be their 11th meeting since the president took office.

Mr. Bush told reporters last week that he will speak with Prime Minister Sharon about the need to continue working with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as part of an international effort to ensure that the government that emerges in Gaza is better able to speak to the hopes of the people who live there. "I firmly believe that Ariel Sharon wants to have a peaceful partner, wants there to be a democracy in the Palestinian Territories. And I believe President Abbas wants the same thing. And there is a lot of hard work to be done, but we are making progress," he said.

President Bush says making progress means more than bringing security to Gaza. It means international support for economic development for the Palestinians, which, he says, will make success on the West Bank easier as well.

One of the biggest issues facing the two sides in Gaza is the planned withdrawal of Israeli settlements there, which could cost more than one-and-a-half billion dollars in compensation for settlers and in military costs to forcibly remove those who refuse to leave.

President Bush says the best way forward remains the road map to peace, a plan drawn up by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia and leading toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

But Prime Minister Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza was a unilateral decision outside the road map, raising concerns among Palestinians that the Israeli leader still intends to expand Israeli settlements elsewhere, including the West Bank.

President Bush said he will make clear to the prime minister that that is not part of the peace plan. "Our position is very clear, that the road map is important. And the road map calls for no expansion of the settlements," he said.

Prime Minister Sharon is facing some domestic opposition to his planned pull-out from Gaza and is hoping to keep some settlements in the West Bank as part of a final peace deal.

Palestinian negotiators say Israel must return all occupied lands and are wary of moving forward to an interim Palestinian state that does not include all of the West Bank for fear that that arrangement might end up being the final demarcation.

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