AFP - French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Israel on Monday to halt its war in Gaza, but was rebuffed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who rejected any truce that fails to end the Islamist group's rocket attacks on Israel.
Sarkozy met Olmert after talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the architect of a six-month truce whose expiry on December 19 unleashed a series of events that resulted in the Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Sarkozy said after meeting Abbas: "We, Europe want a ceasefire as soon as possible. Time is working against peace. The weapons must be silenced and there must be a temporary humanitarian truce."
But Olmert's response was that "the results of the operation must be... that Hamas must not only stop firing but must no longer be able to fire.
"We cannot accept a compromise that will allow Hamas to fire in two months against Israeli towns," his office quoted the premier as saying.
The UN Security Council was to hold a ministerial meeting on Tuesday to discuss an Arab call for an immediate ceasefire and for protection of Palestinian civilians, diplomats said.
But Olmert said: "At this time and in view of the diplomatic developments, it will not be wise to pass a (Security Council) resolution on the issue because experience has shown that Israel cannot afford losing its freedom to act against terrorism."
In that vein, a senior Israeli official said peace efforts were under way in the Middle East itself, led by Washington, that would probably be more fruitful than any Security Council action.
"There are currently a few regional initiatives led by the US... They are making progress... Israel believes that these regional initiatives involving several Arab countries, mainly Egypt, would be more effective than a UNSC resolution."
Concretely, Olmert and Sarkozy agreed that the French president would continue to push for a deal involving Egypt.
The French president had harsh words for Hamas, which refused to renew the six-month ceasefire and continued to fire rockets as Israel bombarded Gaza.
"Hamas acted in an irresponsible and unforgiveable manner... Hamas is to blame for the suffering of the Palestinians," he said.
Hamas accused Sarkozy of "total bias" towards Israel.
Abbas called "for an immediate and unconditional end to the Israeli aggression against my people in the Gaza Strip."
Talks earlier on Monday with Mubarak in Cairo focused on "Egyptian efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire in Gaza... and a return to the truce between Palestinians and Israelis," Egypt's official MENA news agency reported.
Cairo, whose role as mediator has been shaken by accusations of complicity in Israel's campaign, controls Rafah, Gaza's only border crossing which bypasses the Jewish state.
Also in Egypt on Monday was a delegation of EU foreign ministers, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said their talks touched on getting the Security Council to pass a resolution on a ceasefire.
After Egypt, the European foreign ministers headed for Jerusalem, Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and Amman, along with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Hamas said it was sending a delegation to Egypt for talks on the war in Gaza, the first such contact since the fighting began.
"We have received an invitation from Egypt and we're going to Cairo to listen to Egyptian officials and discuss with them suspended issues, notably the (permanent) reopening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip," Beirut-based Hamas official Ossama Hemdan told AFP.
"We want an immediate end to Israeli aggression and the lifting of the blockade and we will listen to Egyptian proposals" on the subject, he added.
Hamas, which has controlled the strip since June 2007, has said it would be open to a ceasefire if Israel lifted its blockade and opened the crossings into the densely populated and impoverished coastal strip.