Israel ready for US-led peace talks, says Sharon

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The Independent Online

European foreign ministers will back moves today to put international monitors into the Middle East to oversee a ceasefire, as the EU tries to build on indications that Israel may take part in a peace conference.

Hopes of a breakthrough were boosted last night when Ariel Sharon, the Israeli premier, claimed America would host a new attempt to broker peace in the region.

After talks with Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, Mr Sharon said he was "ready to have a regional conference in which a number of countries would participate: Israel, Egypt, the Saudis, Jordan, Morocco and Palestinian representatives. It doesn't have to be limited to these."

He added: "The conference would be hosted by the United States. This idea is acceptable to the United States and I estimate that within a short period of time the conference will indeed convene."

The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat described Mr Sharon's idea as a "waste of time", saying Israel should accept a peace plan adopted at the Arab summit offering the Jewish state normal relations with Arab states in exchange for a full withdrawal from territory it captured in the 1967 war.

While there was confusion over the prospects for a peace conference and scepticism at Mr Sharon's willingness to negotiate with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, there was also relief at signs of progress.

On Saturday EU diplomats had been bracing themselves for the collapse of Mr Powell's tour. "We have moved back from the abyss," said one EU official yesterday.

At today's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, a far-reaching German peace plan for peace in the Middle East will be welcomed, although it is unlikely to gain formal endorsement. Instead, the EU is expected to stick to the formulation it agreed with America, the United Nations and Russia in Madrid last week.

Both solutions envisage an international force of peace monitors and, although the EU will not offer soldiers or security experts collectively, it will back the idea of a third-party presence underpinning a ceasefire. That could include British or German troops being made available, perhaps with American soldiers.

Confronted by Israeli defiance of international demands for an end to military activities in the occupied territories, EU ministers have already requested a list of possible measures that could be taken against Israel.

These range from scaling back political contacts to taking action over an existing trade dispute about goods made in the occupied territories.