U.S. President George W. Bush said on Tuesday that he would press Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at their meeting next week to abide by the road map peace plan and halt settlement expansion.

‘Our position is very clear that the road map is important. And the road map calls for no expansion of the settlements,’ Bush said

Israeli officials have sought to convince Washington to not oppose plans to build 3,500 housing units between the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.

U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the project to expand the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim project.

‘I’m optimistic because I firmly believe that Ariel Sharon wants to have a peaceful partner, wants there to be a democracy in the Palestinian territories,’ Bush told reporters.

The planed grand expansion of the biggest West bank settlement is a major sticking point in talks next Monday between Bush and Sharon at the U.S. president’s Crawford, Texas, ranch.

‘There’s a lot of hard work to be done, but we’re making progress,’ said Bush

Bush has repeatedly pressed Israel to make ‘sacrifices’ to bolster peace talks after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Palestinians consider all settlements to be illegal, but especially concerned that the expansion of the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim would physically block the continuity of Palestinian areas, isolating the south of the West bank from its north, therefore obstructing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Palestinians also fear that the expansion would fully isolate East Jerusalem, the desired future capitol of the Palestinian State, away from Palestinian territories. 

U.S. officials said the administration has been pressing Israel to curb settlement activity. They said the issue was again raised in talks on Monday with Dov Weissglas, a top Sharon adviser.

‘Israel has made commitments under the road map and under the statements that Prime Minister Sharon has made … to stop settlement activity,’ State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

‘We think those are very important commitments, and we expect to see them upheld.’ He added.