Arabs negotiate with West on UN resolution on Gaza

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Arab nations decided Thursday to put aside their proposed U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and negotiate on a rival text put forward by Britain and backed by the United States and France, diplomats said.

The move came on the third day of an emergency council meeting demanded by the Arabs to try to end the fighting in Gaza.

Arab nations had been pressing for a council vote Thursday on their newly revised resolution, which not only would demand an end to all military activity in Gaza but also mention Hamas by name and call for an international force to prevent arms smuggling – two key U.S. demands.

But the changes in the Arab text didn’t meet all the demands of the United States and its key Western allies, Britain and France, all veto-wielding members of the council.

Those nations countered by shelving a weaker “presidential statement” they had proposed Wednesday and introducing a rival resolution, diplomats said. Details of the British-drafted text were not released.

Foreign ministers from key Arab nations, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, came to U.N. headquarters along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to try to reach a consensus on council action.

But meetings Tuesday and Wednesday left the council divided. Arabs insisted on a legally binding resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli troops, while the U.S., Britain and France wanted a weaker statement emphasizing that a “durable cease-fire” requires guarantees on reopening border crossings and preventing arms smuggling by Hamas.

When Arab and Western envoys met Thursday, Miliband presented the British-drafted resolution, diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were private.

Arab ministers discussed that text then rejoined their Western counterparts for further talks. A diplomat at that meeting said the Arabs agreed to negotiate on the British text and proposed a number of amendments.

Leaving that meeting, Rice said: “We’re still working very hard. We’re making some progress.”

Before those talks, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa had said the Arab Group at the world body would be pressing for a Security Council vote Thursday.

Israeli envoys went to Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday and held talks with Egyptian officials on an initiative by the presidents of Egypt and France that calls for a temporary truce. Hamas militants have yet to commit to coming to Cairo for talks and said they have major reservations about the plan.

Hamas violently wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007 and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel.

In a possible sign Hamas was unwilling to compromise yet, a senior Hamas official in Syria, Mohammed Nazzal, told Syrian TV on Thursday that the group would never surrender and vowed to fight house to house against Israeli troops in Gaza.

A joint statement issued by Palestinian groups based in Syria’s capital Thursday rejected the Egyptian-French initiative, saying it would undermine Gazans’ resistance and give Israel “a free hand” to continue aggression.

Hamas is normally a member of the coalition, but it wasn’t clear if it signed the statement. Hamas officials in Syria were not available for comment. Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon who is close to the group’s top leader, said he was not aware of the statement.

Israel’s government said Wednesday that it viewed the Egyptian-French proposal positively but stopped short of acceptance.

The leaders of France and Germany met Thursday to discuss the crisis and urged quick action to halt the fighting. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said any time lost would play into the hands of those who want war.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed the Egyptian-French plan. “We must do everything we can so that this cease-fire occurs as soon as possible,” she said.

International efforts to broker a cease-fire have escalated along with the rise in Palestinian casualties in Gaza. The death toll topped 700 Palestinians on Thursday, according to Gaza medical officials. Eleven Israelis have died since the offensive began Dec. 27.

Speaking in Madrid, Spain, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the Egyptian-French initiative “a positive element” in the peace process and said that “we support it.” Abbas’ faction, which controls the West Bank, has little sway in Gaza.

The Egyptian-French initiative aims to achieve a “lasting halt” to the fighting and a pullout of Israeli troops along with a cessation of militant rocket fire into Israel and arms smuggling to Hamas, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said.

In Washington, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution stating an “unwavering commitment” to Israel and its right to defend itself, while also calling for “a viable and independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside a secure state of Israel.” The House was expected to pass a similar measure Friday.

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Associated Press writers Omar Sinan in Cairo, Egypt, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Christine Ollivier and Jamey Keaten in Paris, and Anne Flaherty in Washington contributed to this report.