Blair snubbed by Europe's Middle East initiative

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The Independent Online

A rift between Britain and France deepened last night as three European countries launched a surprise Middle East initiative to halt the violence and hold out prospects of an eventual long term settlement.

The plan, agreed by France, Italy and Spain, was announced by the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, yesterday at a summit with French President Jacques Chirac. Mr Zapatero said stability and security in the Middle East meant stability and security for the world.

The initiative clearly caught Downing Street by surprise. Asked if the Prime Minister was aware of it, his spokesman replied laconically: "We will wait and see."

At the core of the plan - to be put to next month's EU summit - is an immediate ceasefire with an international mission to monitor it in Gaza; a boost for efforts already under way to form a new "national unity" Palestinian government that can earn international recognition; prisoner exchanges to release the three soldiers whose abduction sparked war in Lebanon and fighting in Gaza this summer; and talks between Israel and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Israeli government also said the ideas "were not coordinated with us."

The package appears to have been given impetus by the killing of 19 civilians in Gaza by Israeli forces last week. Mr Zapatero said the violence had "reached a level of deterioration that requires determined, urgent action".

Britain angered its European partners on Monday when Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, watered down a statement that would have condemned Israel for the shelling.

A gap opened at the UN Security Council on Saturday night when the UK abstained on a resolution criticising Israel.

France voted for the resolution, which was vetoed by the US. Mr Zapatero said he hoped to attract the support of Britain and Germany. But it was far from clear last night where the initiative left Tony Blair's intention to devote the rest of his premiership to seeking a Middle East solution.

While Mr Blair signified on his last trip to the region in mid-September that he wanted to return before the end of the year, there are no clear plans for him to do so. That could change if a "unity government" was operating in the coming weeks.

President Chirac said after the summit in Girona: "Our three countries have the sensitivity, the same interests and the same morals, and maybe we can play a part in working out a solution to the Palestinian problem."

Mr Zapatero said he envisaged an eventual major international conference on the Middle East, but did not specify whether he would like it to take place in Madrid.

The initiative comes after the Israeli daily, Maariv, reported that Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, had discussed with President Bush a plan to withdraw from parts of the West Bank in co-ordination with Mr Abbas. The report said this was conditional on Mr Abbas's government fulfiling the conditions set by the international community.