US Supports Egyptian-French Initiative On Gaza

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UNITED NATIONS — The Security Council failed to agree on action to end the escalating crisis in Gaza on Wednesday, but the U.S. threw its weight behind a cease-fire initiative and Egypt announced it will host separate talks with Israel and Hamas on the proposal.

The U.N.'s most powerful body was divided because Arabs are insisting on a legally binding resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli troops while the U.S., Britain and France want a weaker statement emphasizing that a "durable cease-fire" requires guarantees on reopening border crossings and preventing arms smuggling to Hamas.

"There is no unanimity today on either of those text," France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, the current council president said after closed consultations, "and because we want to go forward in a common approach we have decided to continue our talks and our negotiations."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met into the night with counterparts from key Arab and European nations over the Security Council's next step. She emerged saying: "We believe that there is still work to do." That view was echoed by the Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers.

The U.S., British and French ministers, as well as the Arab negotiators, extended their stay in New York and scheduled another closed-door session Thursday morning.

Rice applauded the Egyptian-French cease-fire proposal and said she had talked with both the Israelis and Arab envoys about "the importance of moving that initiative forward."

Israel's government said earlier that it viewed the proposal positively but stopped short of acceptance. A Hamas official said the Islamic militant group, which rules Gaza, was not ready to either accept or reject the plan, which he claimed favored Israel.

Egypt's top diplomats said Wednesday that Egypt plans to broker "technical" talks in Cairo separately with representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on the initiative.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he expected the Israeli team to arrive Thursday, but he stressed that there would be no meeting between Israel and Hamas, whose arrival date in Cairo is uncertain.

Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas, which took control of Gaza in June 2007, a terrorist organization and Israel says it launched the current air and ground offensive because of persistent Hamas rocketing that has traumatized southern Israel.

Aboul Gheit said Egypt will be asking Israel and Hamas for a temporary cease-fire "that would lead to a consolidated permanent cease-fire." Then, he said, negotiations would take place with the European Union and the Palestinian Authority, which lost control of Gaza, on how to open the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian-Gaza border.

Israel and the United States are demanding that border monitors destroy tunnels that Hamas has used to smuggle arms into Gaza from Egypt.

Aboul Gheit said Egypt would next move to bring Hamas and all Palestinian organizations back to Cairo to try to get an agreement on a unity government, a coalition government, or a transition government _ "call it what you want."

That is considered crucial to achieving the ultimate goal of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that would see two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.

In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the Palestinian Authority supported the cease-fire initiative, but the administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no sway in Gaza. Sarkozy did not mention Hamas.

Israeli officials were noncommittal on the plan. "Israel welcomes the initiative of the French president and the Egyptian president to bring about a sustainable quiet in the south," government spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem.

A Hamas representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, said only that the group was considering the proposal, along with other ideas presented by Turkey and by Arab states.

"We are still studying the Egyptian proposal and I haven't said that we have rejected it. But we don't discuss the presence of monitors or international troops or forces to protect the occupation," he told Al-Arabiya television.

In a potential warning sign, Hamdan complained that "the initiatives mostly favor Israel."

Arab ministers said one reason they are pushing for a Security Council resolution is Israel's refusal to give outright support the Egyptian-French initiative.

"They have been indicating willingness, or that it is a positive step, but there is not yet a clear-cut recognition and acceptance," Egypt's Aboul Gheit said.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the 22-nation organization didn't want "a statement to express views, but a decision on a resolution that calls for a cease-fire that has the weight of the Security Council."

He said the Arabs do not want to put a resolution to a vote if it will be vetoed.

"We'll be pushing the Arab Group to push for a vote," Aboul Gheit said. "If we would manage to get the draft passed, (so) be it. If not, we will be continuing our effort on the other level."

The current Libyan draft resolution would almost certainly face a U.S. veto because it doesn't address Hamas arms smuggling, and doesn't even mention Hamas by name.

Moussa said the draft was being revised, including to add an endorsement of the Egyptian-French initiative.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged adoption of the presidential statement, saying there was "broad support" for it.

The draft statement stresses "the urgent need for an immediate and durable cease-fire," expresses "grave concern at the deepening humanitarian crisis," and says the council "will take comprehensive action as Egyptian and other international initiatives will materialize."

A top French diplomat in Paris said the first aim of the initiative was to speed up Israeli-Egyptian negotiations on increasing security along Gaza's borders. Then talks would be held on reopening border crossings, he said.

The latter negotiations could quickly lead to an Israeli military pullout from Gaza, said the official, who was close to the initiative and agreed to describe the sensitive contacts only if not quoted by name.

Under the initiative, Turkey has been asked to put together an international force for Gaza, a Mideastern diplomat said.

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Associated Press writers John Heilprin at the United Nations, Christine Ollivier and Jamey Keaten in Paris and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.