Spain will sponsor a new Middle East peace initiative along with France
and Italy, the Spanish prime minister said Thursday, stressing that the
international community cannot remain idle as violence rages between
Israel and the Palestinians.

Zapatero announced the initiative during a summit with the French President Jacques Chirac of France.

"Peace between Israel and the Palestinians means to a large extent peace on the international scene," Zapatero told a news conference.

"We cannot remain impassive in the face of the horror that continues to unfold before our eyes," Zapatero said.

There are hopes in Europe for a greater voice in world affairs, particularly after midterm US elections in which voters punished President George W. Bush and gave control of Congress to the Democrats.

Many on this side of the Atlantic hope the results will usher in a more humble US foreign policy, in which Washington seeks the advice and input of its European allies, rather than dictating policy to them.

There was no immediate reaction from Israel, the Palestinians or Washington to Thursday's announcement.

Zapatero cited the Israeli shell blast that killed 19 people last week in a Palestinian village and the death this week of an Israeli woman in a Palestinian rocket attack.

The violence, he said, "has reached a level of deterioration that requires determined, urgent action by the international community."

The peace plan will be presented to an EU summit next month, Zapatero said, adding he hopes to win the backing of Britain and Germany as well.

He said it had five components: an immediate cease-fire, formation of a national unity government by the Palestinians that can gain international recognition, an exchange of prisoners – including the IDF soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the war in Lebanon and fighting in Gaza this summer – talks between Israel's prime minister and the Palestinian Authority Chairman and an international mission in Gaza to monitor a cease-fire.

Eventually, a major international conference on Middle East peace should be held, he added, but did not specify if such a meeting should take place in Spain.

Spain hosted a landmark peace conference in 1991 that laid the groundwork for the Oslo accords, which in turn led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

Middle East peace, Zapatero said, "is one of the factors that can contribute most to cornering fanaticism and terrorism."

Europe's efforts to help broker a peace deal have hit some speed bumps recently, and the continent could face problems this time as well. Many in Israel view European leaders as pro-Palestinian and are wary of their motives.

Last month, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a leading European voice on the Middle East, said that the "road map" plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was fatally stalled and that Europe should take the initiative to come up with a new plan.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were quick to reject his comments as overly pessimistic. Both sides insisted that the road map was not dead, just in serious need of a mechanism for implementation.

The US-backed road map, devised in 2003, called for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel, but it never got off the ground because neither side lived up to even their initial commitments under the blueprint.