JERUSALEM (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy began a peace-brokering tour of the Middle East by calling on Monday for a cease-fire between Israel’s army and Hamas Islamists, locked in combat in the Gaza Strip.
In the first half of his two-day visit to the region, Sarkozy said Israel had a duty to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza but Hamas was also to blame for breaching a cease-fire by launching rocket attacks against Israel.
“Israel must take a risk for peace,” Sarkozy said at a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Monday evening, after which he met Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Sarkozy earned wide praise during his country’s tenure of the rotating six-month EU presidency last year for brokering a cease-fire between Russia and Georgia and for his role in tackling the global financial crisis. But there was little sign that he had helped move towards a breakthrough on Gaza.
Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 540 Palestinians in 10 days, and Israeli leaders have made clear they are in no rush to pull back ground and air forces despite growing international pressure.
“Because Israel is a democracy, it cannot leave the humanitarian situation as it is today,” Sarkozy told a news conference in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom he met after a lunch with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“We in Europe want a cease-fire as quickly as possible, and everyone understands that time is running against peace,” Sarkozy said, adding later that Israel’s actions would not bolster moderate leaders in the Arab world.
An EU mission headed by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country is the current EU president, also met Abbas and attended the news conference.
“We are working on a joint initiative with our Egyptian friends,” Sarkozy said, declining to give details of what he called “extremely complex negotiations.”
Israel has rejected any formal cease-fire that would bind its hands and give Hamas a measure of legitimacy, but says it is prepared to enter into arrangements with regional and international partners, like Abbas, Egypt and the European Union, to help oversee security along Gaza’s border.
Sarkozy said Egypt was prepared to put all subjects on the table in order to build confidence on all sides.
“I am thinking notably of the problems of contraband and the delivery of arms, which worry our Israeli friends,” he said.
Instead of observers monitoring any cease-fire, Israel wants an international mission on the Egyptian-Gaza border to prevent Hamas from re-establishing a network of tunnels that could be used to smuggle in longer-range rockets and other weapons, Israeli officials involved in the deliberations said.
They told Reuters talks were under way with EU, U.S., Egyptian and other regional leaders about such a force.
Sarkozy was due to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday morning before travelling to neighbouring Lebanon.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Adam Entous in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah; editing by Andrew Roche