Spain, France and Italy Present Mideast Peace Plan

Spain, France and Italy presented a Mideast peace initiative Thursday, asserting that Europe must step forward to try to end years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed that they termed intolerable.

The five-point blueprint put forward by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero closely mirrors a deal the moderate Palestinian president is offering Hamas to form a national unity government, and it makes no explicit reference to the need for Hamas to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist — a key sticking point blocking the resumption of Western aid to the impoverished Palestinians.

It was not immediately clear if the initiative was an effort to get the aid flowing again without such a declaration from Hamas.

European Union officials in Brussels refused to comment. EU members want the Hamas government to recognize Israel's right to exist and have cut off direct aid to the Palestinian government. But the EU has crafted an alternative route, overseen by the World Bank, that bypasses officials channels.

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Zapatero announced the plan at a summit with President Jacques Chirac of France. Italy is also on board, Zapatero said, and Spain hopes to win the endorsement of Britain and Germany and the broader European Union in the run-up to a December summit in Brussels.

"We cannot remain impassive in the face of the horror that continues to unfold before our eyes," Zapatero told a news conference in this coastal city near the border with France.

The Israeli government declined to comment on the new plan.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is close to President Mahmoud Abbas, said any international peace initiative was welcome but he stopped short of a warm endorsement of this new one.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel, we don't need a new initiative. What we need is a mechanism for implementation and timelines. President Bush has specified the endgame as a two-state solution. What we need is a realistic political track, and that's where this initiative can come in."

The British Foreign Office said it was reserving comment until the full details of the plan are released in December.

Zapatero, asked if the initiative did not first need the support of Israel and the United States, said it made sense for the three largest contributors to the expanded U.N. force in Lebanon to assert themselves for peace. "Someone has to take the first move," he said.

The plan has five components: an immediate cease-fire, formation of a national unity government by the Palestinians that can gain international recognition, an exchange of prisoners — including the Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the war in Lebanon and fighting in Gaza this summer — talks between Israel's prime minister and the Palestinian president and an international mission in Gaza to monitor a cease-fire.

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. The group's steadfast refusal to recognize the Jewish state has been the main obstacle in efforts to resume aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian government.

Of the five points in the European plan, only the international observer clause is not included in the package deal Abbas is offering Hamas as a way to form a unity government.

Such an administration would have a division of labor — Abbas would deal with big issues like dealing with Israel, while administrators independent of Hamas would deal with the more mundane, day to day issues of running the Palestinians territories, although Hamas would get to vet a majority of new cabinet ministers.

Still, the idea is that as Abbas would deal with Israel, the government would not have to say whether it recognizes Israel's right to exist.

The Franco-Spanish summit came amid hopes in Europe for a greater voice in world affairs, particularly after midterm U.S. elections in which voters punished President George W. Bush and gave control of Congress to the Democrats.

Many hope the results will usher in a more humble U.S. foreign policy, in which Washington increasingly seeks the advice and input of its European allies.

Zapatero cited the Israeli shell blast that killed 19 people last week in a Palestinian village and the death this week of an Israeli woman in a Palestinian rocket attack.

The violence, he said, "has reached a level of deterioration that requires determined, urgent action by the international community."

Eventually, a major international conference on Mideast peace should be held, Zapatero said. Spain hosted a landmark peace conference in 1991 that laid the groundwork for the Oslo accords, which in turn led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

Europe's efforts to help broker a peace deal have hit some obstacles recently, and the continent could face problems this time as well. Many in Israel view European leaders as pro-Palestinian and are wary of their motives.

Last month, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a leading European voice on the Middle East, said that the 'road map' plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was fatally stalled and that Europe should take the initiative to come up with a new plan.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were quick to reject his comments as overly pessimistic.