JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) arrived in the United States Sunday, expecting overwhelming support from President George W. Bush before embarking on one of the most fundamental concessions in Israeli history — the evacuation of about 9,000 Jewish settlers from their homes. Sharon meets with Bush this week at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, a venue reserved for a select few world leaders.
An embrace from the American leader would bolster Sharon, who faces intense internal opposition to the pullout.
As Sharon was flying to the United States (search) on Sunday, thousands of his opponents planned a rally at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem, hoping to sabotage the withdrawal.
On Saturday, Israeli troops shot and killed three teenagers in a disputed circumstance in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (search), shattering weeks of calm and raising tensions. In response, Palestinian militants fired at least 21 mortar rounds at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the army said.
Israel is set to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements and four more in the West Bank this summer.
In exchange, Sharon wants Bush to reaffirm his statement from last year that it is "unrealistic" to expect Israel to pull back to the borders that existed before the 1967 Mideast War, due to large Jewish settlement blocs that have been built on the territory since then.
However, Israel and Washington recently have clashed over the interpretation of this statement.
Israel insists it has the right to continue expanding these settlements. The United States opposes any further construction there, saying it threatens peace with the Palestinians and violates the internationally backed "road map" peace plan that calls for a settlement freeze.
Recently, the United States objected to an Israeli plan to add 3,650 homes to the West Bank's largest settlement, Maaleh Adumim. The plan would cut off Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of an independent state that includes the entire West Bank.
Bush said Friday he would raise the issue with Sharon.
"What I say publicly, I say privately. And that is, the 'road map' has clear obligations on settlements and that we expect the prime minister to adhere to those road map obligations," Bush said.
But officials familiar with summit preparations said it is unlikely Bush will press Sharon too hard on the issue, fearing it could jeopardize the Gaza withdrawal plan.
"We just want to see disengagement be a success so that we can move forward to implementing the 'road map,'" one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Sharon's spokesman, Assaf Shariv, said: "We are not expecting any pressure."
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom suggested Saturday that Israel would continue with construction in Maaleh Adumim. When asked about the project, he told Israel Radio that expansion of settlements "never needs to be done with drums and cymbals," but he indicated the government had no intention of reversing its plans.
The Palestinians called on Bush not to let up on the settlement issue.
Monday's talks are expected to focus on issues the two leaders agree on.
Sharon has said he will not begin talks on a final peace deal until Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas cracks down on militant groups and disarms them. Abbas refuses to do so and has instead tried to co-opt them.
The Palestinians, who seek a quick resumption of negotiations, say Sharon is simply looking for excuses to avoid negotiations. They fear he will freeze the process after the Gaza withdrawal and use the standstill to further tighten his grip on Jerusalem and the West Bank.
"We expect that President Bush will keep his vision for a two-state solution alive by having Mr. Sharon accept a full cessation of settlement activities. This is really the most important thing for us," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Bush agrees with Israel that Abbas must do more to rein in militants, and U.S. officials say the peace plan must progress step by step, without skipping stages.
Erekat expressed concern that Israel would not progress after the Gaza withdrawal.
"The focus must be on the day after," he said.
Bush has also said he would talk with Sharon "about the need to work with the Palestinian government, President Abbas, to facilitate success, to enhance success" as Israel turns Gaza over to the Palestinians.
Sharon initially wanted to withdraw from Gaza unilaterally but now seeks Palestinian input, including guarantees that Israeli troops and settlers will not come under fire during evacuation.
Talks also are expected to focus on recent developments in the Middle East and Bush's push for democracy in the region. Iran's nuclear aspirations are also of great concern to both countries.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who visited Washington last week, sounded out the administration on U.S. economic support for the pullout, which Israel estimates will cost $1 billion. The director general of Israel's Finance Ministry was to accompany Sharon, Israel Radio said.
The United States would find it difficult to contribute money for settler compensation, but analysts said Washington might be willing to contribute anyway.
"The U.S. never supported the settlement movement, it's considered an obstacle to peace, and therefore if Sharon, on this trip to Crawford, gets American assistance for the pullout, it'll be for ... military redeployment and not for settler compensation," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy.