Sharon firm on West Bank settlements

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised to build up West Bank settlements "as much as we need" as he prepared for talks with US President George Bush.

Sharon was set to meet with Bush early Wednesday outside the UN summit for their first talks since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

But Sharon signaled he would stand firm on the thorny issue of settlement expansion in the West Bank, despite US urgings that he freeze all activities as required by the US-backed peace road map.

A senior official in Sharons delegation acknowledged "differences" with Washington over the expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory, but he felt it would not be a key issue during the talks.

The Palestinians in theia turn fear Israel will follow up the unilateral Gaza withdrawal with efforts to strengthen its major enclaves in the West Bank, where some 250,000 Jewish settlers live.

But Bush has promised to resist that. The last time he met with Sharon, hosting the prime minister at his Texas ranch in April, he made clear his opposition to settlement expansion.

Washington is now looking to bolster Sharon and has been petitioning its European allies to hold off from pressuring him too hard to speed up further peace moves, the Israeli press reported.

During the three-day summit, Sharon is expected to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top European leaders. He will also hold talks with King Abdullah of Jordan, the AFP reports.

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