The Associated Press
January 6, 2009 - 1:00am

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Tuesday a deal for a cease-fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip was "not far" away.

"I'm convinced that there are solutions. We are not far from that. What is needed is simply for one of the players to start for things to go in the right direction," he told reporters during a visit to French United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon.

Sarkozy said he was returning to Sharm el-Sheikh to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to work out the details of a peace plan.

"I do not know if it will work. I am telling you that I am trying and if I am going back there [Sharm el-Sheikh] it is because there is a small hope."

Earlier Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Syria to exert pressure on its ally Hamas in order to help end the fighting in the Gaza.

Sarkozy had said on Monday that he was working on an intitiative with Egypt but declined to give details because of "extremely complex negotiations."

Meanwhile, the United States on Tuesday signaled some flexibility over Israel's offensive on the Gaza Strip, saying it would like to see "an immediate ceasefire" but emphasizing any such agreement must be durable, sustainable and indefinite.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also said Secretary ofState Condoleezza Rice's trip to the United Nations on Tuesday was designed to show that the United States was open a variety of ways to achieve a cease-fire.

"We would like an immediate cease-fire, absolutely," McCormack told reporters, speaking after Israeli tank shells killed at least 40 Palestinians at a United Nations school where civilians had taken shelter. "An immediate cease-fire that is durable, sustainable and not time-limited."

"We want, obviously, to be constructive," he added. "(Rice) going up there is to signal that we are making every possible diplomatic effort to try to bring about a ceasefire on the terms that we have outlined. We are open to a variety of different formats to bring that about."

The spokesman's comments, however, stopped short of a demand that Israel cease its offensive in the Mediterranean coastal strip.

Rice was headed to the United Nations on Tuesday to meet Arab ministers as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a bid to get a cease-fire deal in Gaza, the State Department said.

"The purpose of her trip is to move forward the international efforts to create a ceasefire in Gaza," said a State Department official.

Also Tuesday, Egypt stepped up its pressure on the Syria-based Hamas leadership to accept a cease-fire in the fighting in the Gaza Strip

Sarkozy to Assad: Press Hamas to accept Gaza truce

French President Sarkozy on Tuesday urged Syria to exert pressure on its ally Hamas in order to help end the fighting in the Gaza Strip between the militant Palestinian group and Israel.

Meanwhile, his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad slammed the Israeli assault on the coastal strip as a "war crime" and "barbaric," an aggression that Israel must halt.

Sarkozy's visit to the Syrian capital is part of a whirlwind Mideast tour amid European diplomatic efforts to push a cease-fire proposal to stop Israel's expanding ground and air offensive on the Hamas-ruled area. More than 550 Palestinians have been killed since the assault began on Dec. 27.

Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference with Assad, Sarkozy urged the parties to move forward to end the fighting in Gaza and stressed there can be no military solution for the conflict, now in its 11th day.

"Pressure should be exerted on all parties involved, including Hamas, in order for the guns to fall silent and peace to return," Sarkozy said. "President Bashar Assad can play a major role in this. Syria must help us to convince Hamas to choose the voice of reason and peace."

Syria, along with Iran, is a major backer of Hamas and Damascus hosts the
exiled political leadership of Hamas and other radical Palestinian factions.

In the past, Assad refused Israeli and U.S. demands to drop support for
militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, saying armed resistance against Israel is justified as long as there is occupation. Only briefly in 2003, he bowed to U.S. pressure and temporarily closed Hamas offices in Damascus.

Assad said he agreed with Sarkozy on the need for a quick resolution to the humanitarian tragedy and for a cease-fire, Israeli withdrawal and the lifting of Gaza's siege. Assad made no mention of Hamas ceasing to attack Israel.

"What is happening is a war crime," he said of the Israeli ground and air
assault on Gaza, adding that Israel will not be able to finish off Hamas.

Sarkozy stressed there can be no return to the way things were when Hamas
militants fired rockets into Israel.

"Returning to the status quo as it was before is unacceptable by all sides," Sarkozy said. "Israel wants to guarantee its security and the Palestinians in Gaza want the reopening of the crossings ... We must replace spiral of violence with spiral of peace in Gaza."

Firing rockets on Israel is unacceptable and must stop, Sarkozy added.

He called for sending immediate humanitarian aid to Gaza and underlined the need for opening horizons fast to resume peace negotiations.

Sarkozy has also talked with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during this tour. His next stop is Lebanon.

Egypt urges Syria-based Hamas leadership to accept Gaza truce

Meanwhile, Egypt on Tuesday stepped up its pressure on the Syria-based Hamas leadership to accept a cease-fire in the fighting in the Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli offensive for 11 days.

Egyptian officials close to the negotiations under way in Cairo said the country's influential intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, has urged Hamas envoys to get the Islamist group to cooperate on international efforts to end the conflict.

The Egyptian side wants the Palestinian Hamas group to cooperate with regional and international efforts to end the Gaza conflict, now in its 11th day, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

"The message Hamas is getting (from Suleiman) is that without a cease-fire the Palestinians will be in a grave danger and every thing they have achieved so far will be gone," said one of the Egyptian officials.

Italy expressed support Tuesday for Sarkozy's diplomatic attempt to end fighting in Gaza, appearing to back off suggestions the mission might weaken European Union efforts toward a cease-fire.

"Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was following developments, including unfortunately, the not completely satisfactory European mission, especially regarding the request for an immediate cease-fire," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Along with Sarkozy, an EU delegation, including policy chief Javier Solana has been touring the region. Solana attended the press conference by the Syrian and French presidents.

During a stop in Egypt Monday, Solana said European monitors who were once on Gaza's border with Egypt would be ready to return to work at the crossing after a cease-fire in Gaza is achieved.


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