|Spain, France, Italy launch new blueprint for Middle East peace|
|Palestinians welcome initiative, but israelis flatly reject it|
France, Spain and Italy pushed Thursday for a new Middle East peace plan, including an international conference, in a move welcomed by the Palestinian Authority but promptly rejected by Israel. On the Palestinian domestic front, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and President Mahmoud Abbas plan to meet this month to iron out problems preventing the formation of a unity government, a senior Hamas official said on Thursday.
Spanish Premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero proposed a five-point blueprint for peace during talks with French President Jacques Chirac. They later spoke to Italy's prime minister.
The plan calls for: an immediate cease-fire, exchange of prisoners and an international peace conference, while also backing a prospective Palestinian unity government and a fact-finding mission to the Palestinian territories, Zapatero said.
"We cannot remain impassive in the face of the horror that continues to unfold before our eyes," Zapatero told a news conference during talks with Chirac.
"We want to launch a joint initiative on the Middle East situation and push it through at European Union level, preferably with Germany and Britain," the prime minister said. "We are working with Solana to mobilize all the diplomatic and political resources we need."
Eventually, a major international conference on Middle East peace should be held, Zapatero said. Spain hosted a landmark peace conference in 1991 that laid the groundwork for the Oslo accords.
Zapatero said they wanted to bring their proposal to an EU summit in December, adding that "observation forces" could be sent to monitor any truce.
Chirac for his part said the EU had to act in the face of "the increasingly dramatic situation in the Middle East and in Palestine in particular." Chirac offered France's full support to the initiative, the biggest international project Zapatero has launched since taking power in 2004.
The Palestinian Authority welcomed the initiative.
"We salute the idea of organizing an international peace conference on the Middle East, especially as the 'road map' makes provision for holding such a conference," spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.
But a senior Israeli official rejected it outright.
"The announcement by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is hasty," said the Foreign Ministry official, adding that Israel was "appalled by such naivety" from the Spanish premier.
The British Foreign Office said it was reserving comment until the full details of the plan are released in December.
The European Union's Middle East envoy Marc Otte expressed caution over the plan.
"We must be cautious with such an initiative, examine it and see what legitimacy it will have within a European framework," Otte said in Cairo.
The initiative must above all respond to Israeli and Arab demands in order to be "operational," the EU envoy said.
Asked whether talks were being held with the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace brokers on the latest proposals, Zapatero mentioned the three European countries' peacekeeping role in Lebanon after the July-August conflict there.
"This initiative is France, Spain and Italy exercising their responsibility - almost their duty - as three Mediterranean powers with forces now in Leb-anon," he said.
In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said the countries had an "obligation to look for a way to get out of this situation and prepare ... a peace process."
Although Zapatero said a Palestinian unity government would have to be able to win international recognition, he made no explicit reference to a need for Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist.
In the meantime, Abbas is expected to hold talks with Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshaal in Damascus, Hamas spokesman Izzat al-Rishq said.
"Both sides have agreed to seek a meeting in an Arab country this month, probably under Arab League auspices and with European representation," the spokesman added.
Rishq said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya and representatives of Palestinian groups would attend the meeting, which was being mediated by independent Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa al-Barghouti.
On the ground, Israeli planes carried out five overnight air raids across the Gaza Strip. Palestinian medics said five people were wounded.
Palestinian fighters fired two rockets into southern Israel, but neither caused any casualties.
In the West Bank, a 25-year-old Palestinian militant was killed by an Israeli Army sniper during a raid into a West Bank refugee camp before Israeli troops also staged an incursion into Ramallah.
Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, advocated "targeted killing" operations, branded assassinations by the Palestinians, and warned that Haniyya should not be immune.
Nevertheless Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged that rocket fire would not end in one swoop, but he said that operations would continue "according to circumstance."
"The rocket fire will not end with one blow," he told reporters traveling with him, sentiments echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
"We are making all efforts and a lot of people are risking their lives. But the unequivocal way to stop it [rocket fire] completely has yet to be found," he told army radio.
Beirut,11 20 2006
The Daily Star