WASHINGTON – President Bush said Friday he will tell Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) he should adhere to obligations of a Mideast peace plan that call for a construction freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank (search).
Bush and Sharon will meet on Monday at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, quickening And that is (that) the road map (peace plan) has clear obligations on settlements and that we expect the prime minister to adhere to those road map obligations." The president made his comments to reporters on Air Force One as he flew back to the United States from Rome after the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
Meanwhile, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres has sounded out senior administration officials on U.S. support for economic reconstruction of Gaza (search) after the exodus of the area's 8,000 Jewish settlers next summer.
In meetings Thursday, Peres also raised with Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick prospects for development of the Galilee and Negev areas of Israel, an Israeli diplomat said.
The idea is to attract investments in order to raise living standards for Israeli Jews and Arabs. As a model, Israel is pointing to an economic zone in Jordan that it helped set up and that has created 40,000 jobs for Jordanians.
Peres did not raise with Cheney and Zoellick any U.S. financial support for the economic programs. However, he suggested the United States appoint an American economic expert to help them with Gaza reconstruction, said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Peres' talks precede the meetings that Sharon will have with Bush on his Texas ranch on Monday and with other senior U.S. officials in Washington on Tuesday.
The focus is on Sharon's plan to relinquish Gaza after 38 years and to relocate Jewish settlers, most of them a short distance away in Israel.
To smooth the transfer, Israel is seeking increased cooperation from Palestinian leaders.
Israel is expected to announce by the end of this month that it will turn over the houses the settlers are abandoning to the Palestinians as a goodwill gesture.
Peres stressed an urgent need for economic improvements as a peacemaking measure in his meetings with Cheney and Zoellick.
The proposal for private investments and joint development projects in the Galilee and in the Negev is designed to improve opportunities for Israeli Jews and Arabs, alike.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week the Bush administration wanted to be helpful in the reconstruction of Gaza after Israel withdraws, but also said she was not ready to commit the United States to specifics in a project Israel estimates will cost it $1 billion.
Rice, in an interview with The Associated Press, also urged Israel not to engage in "wanton destruction" of the homes the Jewish settlers will leave behind after this summer's exodus.
Israel is expected to announce in the next few weeks that the houses will be turned over intact to the Palestinians.