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(photo credit: AP)
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expressed hope in Paris on Monday for "a return to calm" by next week, after he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy discussed efforts for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Asked whether such a deal could be signed by Tuesday, Mubarak told reporters at the French presidential palace, "We discussed the date at which a return to calm could come. Perhaps starting next week."
He did not elaborate or speak specifically of a truce.
Mubarak and Sarkozy are working on a plan for a one- or two-year cease-fire that would include the reopening of border crossings and the renewal of long-term peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a French official said.
Sarkozy also wants a longer-term truce to include the release of kidnapped IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said Sunday that the agreement would extend for 18 months and include a prisoner exchange, Palestinian reconciliation and relaunching of the peace process.
Mubarak said he and Sarkozy had discussed Gaza reconstruction, and that he had invited Sarkozy to open a March 2 conference in Cairo on the matter.
Israeli diplomatic officials said they had no information about the conference, but that in principle Israel supported efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip, as long as it was not done in a way that would also rebuild Hamas.
"There is an international consensus behind that principle," the official said, adding that Israel supported reconstruction efforts channeled through the Palestinian Authority or NGOs.
While Israeli officials supported a conference on Gaza reconstruction, they were less supportive of another idea that Sarkozy has been busy advocating: a Middle East peace conference in Paris in late spring or early summer.
According to Israeli officials, the always-active Sarkozy is still trying to market this idea, even though a similar Russian effort over the last year and a half to host an international Middle East conference in Moscow has not moved anywhere.
Expressing Israel's opposition, the official said it was not clear what the reason, goals or purpose of the Paris conference would be. He added that such a conference was especially useless while Hamas continued to control the Gaza Strip.
Mubarak was scheduled to leave France on Monday evening for Italy, and then, after meetings in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, continue on to Turkey for talks with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
In addition to the Gaza reconstruction conference next month, Egypt - whose central role in the Middle East has been underscored by the crisis in Gaza - has also invited the rival Palestinian factions to a reconciliation conference in Cairo this month, a Palestinian official said Monday.
According to Abdel Rahim Malouh, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Palestinian factions have received invitations for the February 22 gathering in the Egyptian capital.
If a deal on a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas is reached, Egypt hopes to forge ahead with reconciliation talks that would also address the forming of a new Palestinian government.
Nasser al-Qidwa, a former Palestinian foreign minister and a senior Fatah official, warned Monday that any final agreement between the Palestinian factions would not have a chance to succeed without an agreement on a strategy for peace with Israel.
"It is key to have a program" in place that will make a future Palestinian government "part of the Arab and international legitimacy," Qidwa said. "Hamas has no real answers to the key questions on how to solve Palestinians' main problems."
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas voiced his willingness Monday to negotiate with Israel's new leadership, but stated he expected from "the new Israeli government a halt to new settlements."
"If the new government doesn't do that, I don't know what will happen with the further stages of the peace process," Abbas said in Warsaw.