Bush-Sharon to consult on Mideast peace

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Washington meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush has been set for next month as part of an intense period of personal Bush consultations with Mideast leaders, the White House announced Friday.

Bush and Sharon will discuss “the war on terror and the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace” when they meet April 14 at the White House, said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan.

The session, in the works for weeks, is scheduled two days after Bush is to welcome Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to his Texas ranch. A week later, on April 21, Bush will meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah at the White House, McClellan said.

Next week, three U.S. emissaries are expected to make a third trip to the region to talk with Israeli and Palestinian officials about Israel’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip. Sharon has proposed dismantling nearly all Israeli settlements in Gaza and some in the West Bank.

After initial hesitation, the administration has warmed to the idea of Israel relinquishing control of Gaza and expelling the 7,500 Israeli Jews who live in the predominantly Palestinian area.

But questions remain, including administration concerns about whether such a unilateral move by Israel is consistent with the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan and whether it enhances — or disrupts — the prospects for a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. As well, the land Israel may be ready to relinquish is unlikely to meet Arab expectations, which include part of Jerusalem as well as all the territory lost in war with Israel in 1967.

A team of administration officials, made up of Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, National Security Council Deputy Director Stephen Hadley and the council’s Mideast specialist, Elliot Abrams, traveled to the region twice in recent months.

But peace talks have been derailed recently amid new fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.

On Monday, Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and later threatened to kill the entire Hamas leadership ahead of the possible Gaza withdrawal. The assassination touched off a wave of Palestinian protests and Hamas elected as its new leader a hard-liner who has pushed for accelerating attacks on Israel.