- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2006

TEL AVIV — Europe is pushing for a greater role in Middle East peace efforts by offering to send peacekeepers to the Gaza Strip — a proposal Palestinians welcomed with enthusiasm and Israel greeted with skepticism.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the joint proposal with France and Italy will be presented to the European Union next month. The plan also calls for an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange, a cease-fire, and a Palestinian unity government.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Rudineh said his government welcomed the initiative, particularly its emphasis on international intervention, the Associated Press reported.

But, an Israeli official who declined to be identified seemed to throw cold water on the proposal, saying, “We believe that it’s best to engage directly with the Palestinians rather than other international forums.”

The Web site of the Ha’aretz newspaper reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni complained to Spain that Israel wasn’t consulted about the plan.

The EU still must ratify the proposal. For it to become policy of the international Quartet on the Middle East peace process, the United States, Russia and the United Nations must sign on as well.

The initiative marks the first time leading players in the peace process are promoting the idea of a multinational force for the Gaza Strip.

Supporters see a European-led peacekeeping force in Gaza as a natural extension of the several thousand detachment of U.N. troops deployed in Lebanon in the wake of the Israel-Hezbollah war last summer.

In the same way the peacekeeping force is serving as a buffer between the sides in Lebanon, a group of international peacekeepers might reduce violence between Israel’s army and Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Presumably, it could also serve as a buffer between warring Palestinian factions who periodically battle each other.

“It seems that the Europeans are being a little more assertive that they were in the past,” said Gershon Baskin, the co-chairman of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.

“I don’t see Israel accepting it right now, but if the Europeans are trying to flex their muscles it will be interesting to see what becomes of it.”

The plan is likely to be discussed at a Wednesday meeting of the Quartet in Cairo, along with other proposals, such as a European offer to host an international peace conference.

Israel has traditionally opposed international intervention in the West Bank and Gaza. But a team of European monitors is stationed at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

Earlier this week, a Ha’aretz editorial endorsed the idea of international peacekeepers for Gaza, citing the Lebanon precedent.

“This is not a perfect solution,” the editorial noted. “But after having tried everything, and after it became clear that the use of force alone does not solve the problem, there is no other option.”

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