U.S. and Israeli leaders discussing settlement dispute at ranch meeting

President George W. Bush met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday to offer support for his controversial Gaza pullout plan that the Israeli leader said has generated an atmosphere approaching civil war.

The leaders conferred at the president's ranch, the first in a series of Bush's meetings with Mideast leaders over the next month.

Sharon is under fire for a plan to dismantle all 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank in July and August, removing about 9,000 Israelis from their homes.

Referring to the mood in Israel, Sharon said in an interview with NBC News, "The tension here, the atmosphere here looks like the eve of the civil war. All my life I was defending life of Jews. Now for the first time, steps I'm taking to protect me from Jews."

"Yasser Arafat was first of all a murderer and he was someone with whom there was no chance whatsoever to reach peace," Sharon said. "I believe that at the current time, maybe for the first time, there is a possibility to try and solve the problem."

Bush has said he wants an update on Sharon's progress on the withdrawal plan, and has raised concern about settlement expansion in the West Bank.

The United States has 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.

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.

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.

The president has made the spread of democracy in the Mideast a goal of his second term. He also plans to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at his Texas ranch on April 25 and will see Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas when he visits the United States next month.

Some Crawford businesses displayed the Israeli flag to welcome Sharon, while a few dozen protesters waving Palestinian flags marched around the small town's downtown intersection Sunday. The Unity Coalition for Israel also planned a demonstration Monday to tout claims that Palestinian statehood would be a reward for terrorism.

The "road map" peace plan envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel but has been frozen since its launch in June 2003 amid violations by both sides.

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. Bush agrees with Israel that Abbas must do more to rein in militants.

Sharon wants Palestinian leaders to guarantee that Israelis will not come under fire during settlement evacuation.

On Saturday, Israeli troops shot and killed three teenagers in disputed circumstances in the Gaza Strip, shattering weeks of calm and raising tensions. In response, Palestinian militants fired at least 21 mortar rounds at Jewish settlements there, the army said.

Sharon, speaking to reporters as he flew to his meeting with Bush, said the mortar fire "is a flagrant violation of the understandings" reached at the February truce summit with Abbas.

"And this will be a central issue to be raised in my talks with President Bush," he said.

NEDRA PICKLER, Associated Press Writer

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