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May 17, 2003

Settlements Top the Agenda As Bush, Sharon Meet in D.C

So says this article in Forward
The issue of Jewish settlements in the territories is the main obstacle awaiting Prime Minister Sharon when he meets with President Bush at the White House next Tuesday, according to informed sources here.

Israel views Sharon's White House visit, his first since October, as "crucial" to continued progress toward peace with the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom told the Forward in an interview in his office this week. Bush and Sharon are expected to discuss a range of topics, including the overall situation in the post-Iraq Middle East as well as steps toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, and officials here were emphasizing broad areas of agreement between the two leaders as Sharon prepared to depart.

Officials said the two leaders' shared outlook on the war against terrorism was likely to play a significant role in their talks in the wake of this week's deadly terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, Sharon is expected to face close questioning from the president on outstanding differences between them over Bush's "road map" to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Topping the list are Washington's insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze and Israel's demand that the Palestinians renounce their so-called "right of return" at the outset of the process.

Shalom told the Forward that Washington has already reached an understanding about "most" of Israel's other reservations over the road map. These include Israel's objection to the European Union, Russia and the United Nations playing a role in monitoring Palestinian security compliance. America has also accepted Israel's view that progress in the peace process must be based on performance, not timetables.

In order to minimize friction over the settlements, officials here said, Sharon is expected to present Bush with an Israeli decision to remove some of the so-called "illegal outposts" built in the West Bank during the past two years. But the officials expressed fears that this might not be enough to ward off pressure from the president.

According to reports reaching Jerusalem, State Department officials have identified the settlement issue as Sharon's Achilles' heel in the otherwise solid support he enjoys in the administration, Congress and American public opinion. "This is clearly the only possible wedge issue between the two leaders," one official said.[more]