Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives Monday at President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., for his 11th meeting with the president in four years, a coveted invitation that is intended to reward Sharon for taking the politically difficult step of ousting Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip.
But the celebratory mood has been overshadowed by a perennial dispute between the Israelis and Americans over Israel's settlement plans in Palestinian territories on the West Bank, as well as a growing sense in the Middle East that the peace process has once again begun to stall just months after new Palestinian leadership was elected.
Israeli officials, who fanned across Washington this week for preparatory meetings with U.S. officials, have set relatively low goals for the meeting. They are looking for Bush -- an unwavering defender of Sharon -- to publicly reaffirm a series of previous commitments to Israel.
These commitments include statements last April that Israel might expect to keep some large settlements on the West Bank in a final peace deal, that the U.S.-backed "road map" remains the basis for future discussions and that Sharon's plan to leave Gaza should remain the priority for now.
While those statements may appear bland -- and appear to simply restate previous comments -- they might have the effect of boxing in the Palestinians at this juncture. Palestinian officials feel they have made important strides -- holding elections, overhauling security services, establishing a cease-fire -- and want to begin to move quickly to final peace talks. The atmosphere has become so calm that March was the first month in four years in which no Israelis died from a terrorist attack.
Phase two of the road map calls for an interim Palestinian state, which in theory could be Gaza and pieces of the West Bank, and Palestinians remain convinced Sharon wants to freeze the process at that stage for years to come. "Palestinians are deathly afraid of being pushed in phase two, which is the death of the Palestinian state," said Edward G. Abington Jr., a consultant to the Palestinian Authority.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One as he flew to Texas after attending Pope John Paul II's funeral, Bush said, "We have a great opportunity -- 'we,' the world, has a great opportunity -- to help a democracy grow, begin and grow, starting in the Gaza." He said there "needs to be an international effort that encourages and fosters economic vitality so that a government that does emerge in Gaza will be able to better speak to the hope of those who live in the Gaza."
Bush said he will talk to Sharon "about the need to work with the Palestinian government, President [Mahmoud] Abbas, to facilitate success, to enhance success."
But Israelis and Palestinians say there has been little coordination since Sharon and Abbas held a high-profile summit in Egypt earlier this year. Israeli officials say they have implored Palestinians to work with them in coordinating the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza so that housing, greenhouses and other structures are preserved and violence and looting is minimized.
But Palestinians are cautious about participating in the process, fearing they may legitimate what was originally billed as a unilateral Israeli action. Moreover, it may be politically more advantageous for some Palestinians, such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), to claim their armed struggle drove the Israelis out of Gaza.
The Gaza withdrawal is expected to cost about $1.5 billion, two-thirds of which will compensate settlers and businesses that leave assets behind, Israeli officials said. The rest of the money will be devoted to the military deployment. While about one-third of the families are simply expected to take their checks and leave, hard-core settlers -- and their allies from other settlements who may seek to occupy homes that are vacated -- will need to be forcibly removed.
Israeli officials originally had planned to destroy the homes when they left, but that would have cost $25 million, and so now officials expect to simply leave the homes empty. Jewish graveyards will be removed and synagogues dismantled, but agricultural infrastructure such as water irrigation and greenhouses will remain, said Israeli Housing Minister Issac Herzog.
Adding to the volatile mix of politics and violence, all of this will come to a head as the Palestinians are planning for parliamentary elections in mid-July. If Abbas is unable to demonstrate results for the Palestinians, a large share of seats may be claimed by Hamas, a militant anti-Israeli group.
Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that Israelis know "the situation in Gaza is terrible" and are "very worried that after our withdrawal, people will wake up very disappointed."
In his talks with U.S. officials this week, Peres said he promoted the idea of a U.S.-appointed economic coordinator to bring together funds donated by companies and countries to assist the economic rebirth of Gaza. U.S. officials have been considering naming such a coordinator, similar to a U.S. general who is assisting the Palestinians on streamlining of security.
But Bush administration officials largely have remained distant from the bickering between the two sides, preferring to let them haggle over the details. On Wednesday, on the sidelines of a conference in Washington sponsored by the Aspen Institute, Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan and Sharon's national security adviser, Giora Eiland, met for two hours and agreed to set up five committees that would examine aspects of the Gaza withdrawal. The process was sealed when Abbas agreed to it in a phone call with Dahlan during the meeting.
But it was Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, not any U.S. official, who pressed the two sides to meet in the first place.