updated 3/18/2005 3:47:14 PM ET 2005-03-18T20:47:14

President Bush has invited Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to his Texas ranch in mid-April to help advance the Middle East peace process, a senior administration official said Friday.

Invitations to the president’s private ranch at Crawford, Texas, typically are reserved for top diplomatic efforts. This one comes as Bush has been citing progress in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the official told The Associated Press of the invitation on a condition of anonymity because the trip has not been officially announced.

In a speech last week, Bush hailed fresh signs of democracy in the Middle East. He said the United States’ goal is to see “two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security.”

“The United States is determined to help the parties remove obstacles to progress and move forward in practical ways, so we can seize this moment for peace in the Holy Land,” Bush said during a March 8 speech at the National Defense University.

Sharon would be the third foreign leader to visit the ranch in less than a month. Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin are scheduled to visit next Wednesday.

Bush plans to hold working sessions with Fox and Martin at Baylor University in nearby Waco, Texas, and host a lunch for them at his ranch, where he will be taking an Easter break.

Withdrawal plans
Meanwhile, Israeli military officials said Friday that the Israeli army will begin withdrawing nonessential equipment from the Gaza Strip in the next two weeks in an initial step toward the full Israeli pullout from the area planned for this summer.

Military officials said on condition of anonymity that logistical equipment, such as food storage facilities, would soon be pulled out of Gaza. The idea is “not to keep everything for the last minute,” one official said.

Troops and military vehicles would not be included in this stage of the withdrawal, he said.

Israeli officials said plans already have been drawn up to relocate all forces in Gaza to nearby bases in southern Israel. Construction on those bases is expected to begin in the coming days.

The Israeli army began withdrawing nonessential equipment from southern Lebanon about three months before a full withdrawal in 2000. The Gaza pullout is scheduled to begin in July.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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