Egypt welcomes Hamas’ statements on reconciliation

Israel admits using white phosphorus in Gaza

Berlusconi says Israel should join EU

Moussa expects inter-Palestinian reconciliation to materialize in mid-2010

Assad urges France to play role with Turkey in peace efforts as Barak warns of Mideast war

Lebanese President Sleiman meets chief of UN tribunal on Hariri assassination

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak received a telephone call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

They reviewed issues pertaining to the peace negotiations in the Middle East.

Mubarak underlined the importance of urging Israel to take positive action which could pave the way for the resumption of negotiations.

Egypt on Tuesday welcomed a series of statements from Hamas leaders indicating they were anxious to sign a reconciliation deal with the rival Palestinian faction Fatah.

"This desire was missing during the past period," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said. "Palestinian reconciliation was, and will always be, a pivotal goal for Egypt in dealing with the current Palestinian situation."

Fatah signed an Egyptian-brokered agreement last October, but Hamas balked at the deal, saying it wanted to clarify a few points first.

Relations between Egypt and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, have soured in recent weeks, following the fatal shooting of an Egyptian border guard during a Palestinian protest against Egypt's closure of the border with the Gaza Strip.

Hamas' exiled political leader, Khaled Meshaal, announced Monday that the movement was ready for reconciliation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction, which controls Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank, urging Cairo to arrange a meeting to strike the deal.

"We will move toward reconciliation, with God's will, and we will give everything for the sake of reconciliation," he said. "This is a promise."

Zaki, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, on Tuesday said that reviewing the proposal and changing it again might "delay the reconciliation for an unknown period."

"Changing the proposal for one party means reviewing it for all the other parties, which means moving backwards," he said.

"Palestinian reconciliation is urgently needed to regain ... Palestinian rights, and to establish an independent state," Zaki said.

"Egypt's position remains to call on all factions to sign the proposal, before taking their remarks into consideration during implementation," he said.

Meanwhile, two senior officers in the Israeli Defense Force have been reprimanded for using white phosphorus during an offensive in Gaza.

While the identities of the officers or their punishments have not been made public, the admissions were made in a document answering allegations from the Goldstone report.

The report, which was made to the UN, while not detailed, simply explained that the officers who had been dealt with were a brigadier-general and a colonel who had authorized the firing of shells in violation of the rules of engagement prohibiting use of such artillery near populated areas.

During the 22-day conflict last year, pictures were released showed incendiary shells hitting a UN compound.

The Goldstone report concluded both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes, although Hamas has denied that its forces deliberately targeted civilians with rockets.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said at the start of a three-day visit to Israel on Monday that the Jewish state's future belongs in the European Union.

"My greatest desire, as long as I am a protagonist in politics, is to bring Israel into membership of the European Union," the Italian leader said at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.

Berlusconi also spoke of his "great friendship and love for Israel and its people."

Netanyahu called the visit -- during which eight Italian ministers accompanying Berlusconi will hold a joint cabinet meeting on Tuesday with their Israeli counterparts -- "historic."

"I have the privilege of hosting one of the greatest friends of Israel," he said.

While Israeli relations with some European nations have been frosty over the conflict with the Palestinians, ties with Italy have been much warmer, spurred by the personal friendship between the two leaders.

After he took office early last year, Netanyahu's first European visit was to Italy.

Berlusconi, who will address Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on Wednesday, told a state dinner how a visit to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland influenced his support for Israel.

"From that moment on I felt I was part of your history and I acted in the manner which I thought was the most appropriate by backing your people and your country," he said.

"It is my duty to act so that leaders of the world do not make the same error," he said, stressing that "indifference" was the root cause of the Holocaust.

Netanyahu responded with comments apparently aimed at Iran, calling Israel's arch-foe "a bloodthirsty dictatorship," although he did not identify the Islamic republic by name.

"Mankind stands before one of its greatest tests since World War II, the attempt by an extremist Islamic regime, a bloodthirsty dictatorship, to acquire nuclear weapons and endanger the whole world," he said.

Israel has routinely called for tough measures against Iran, which the West suspects of seeking to develop a weapons capability under the guise of a civil nuclear program, an accusation Tehran denies.

Israel is widely believed to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power.

Before his visit, Berlusconi had expressed some criticism of Israel, telling Haaretz newspaper that the country's "settlement policy could be an obstacle to peace."

"I would like to say to the people and government of Israel, as a friend, with my hand on my heart, that persisting with this policy is a mistake," he said.

However, Berlusconi praised Netanyahu's "courage" for imposing in November a 10-month freeze on new construction in settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinians have refused to re-launch peace talks with Israel without a full freeze, and said Netanyahu's limited moratorium was insufficient because it excludes east Jerusalem, public buildings and projects already under way.

Nearly half a million Israelis live in more than 120 settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

On the other hand, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned Monday that the stalled peace process with Syria could augur ill for the future of the Middle East region.

"In the absence of an arrangement with Syria, we are liable to enter a belligerent clash with it that could reach the point of an all-out, regional war," Barak was quoted by local daily Haaretz as telling senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers.

"Just like the familiar reality in the Middle East, we will immediately sit down (with the Syrians) after such a war and negotiate on the exact same issues which we have been discussing with them for the last 15 years," said the defense minister.

Barak has long called for a resumption of peace talks with Damascus, yet his warning of a regional war is significant in that it is uncharacteristically sharp and strident, said Haaretz.

After Israel launched military offensive against the Hamas- ruled Gaza Strip in late 2008, Syria formally suspended the indirect peace talks with the Jewish state, which started in May of 2008 under the mediation of Turkey.

Syria has said it would resume indirect peace talks with Israeli government as long as they focused on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel seized in 1967 and annexed in 1981 with no recognition of the international community.

A senior member of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party made a rare visit to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip on Wednesday in a bid to encourage stalled reconciliation efforts.

Nabil Shaath, a member of the central committee of the secular Fatah, met with Khalil al-Hayya, a senior official from the Islamist Hamas, which seized Gaza in June 2007 after a week of vicious street battles with Fatah loyalists.

"I want to see the citizens and their situation in Gaza. I am coming to part of the (Palestinian) homeland and I don't need a visa," he told reporters after passing through the Erez border crossing from Israel.

"I am in contact with my brothers in Hamas and all the Palestinian factions, and all of them know about this visit. I am not on a secret mission.

"I hope this visit will create a better climate to encourage our brothers in Hamas to sign the Egyptian document," he said, referring to a unity deal proposed by Cairo that was signed by Fatah in October.

Hamas has refused to sign the proposed unity deal unless it is amended to reflect what the group says were previous understandings reached with Fatah.

Both Egypt and Fatah have said the deal is final.

The two main Palestinian movements have been deeply divided since Hamas took over Gaza following months of unrest, confining Abbas' authority to the occupied West Bank and cleaving the Palestinians into hostile rival camps.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured Syria on Thursday that Israel sought peace after his fiery foreign minister threatened to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in any future war.

Avigdor Lieberman's remarks clashed with Netanyahu's often-repeated call for Assad to negotiate peace with Israel and prompted the Israeli leader to discuss what a spokesman termed "the Syrian issue" with the ultranationalist cabinet member.

"Both men clarified that government policy is clear: Israel seeks peace and negotiations with Syria, without preconditions," a Netanyahu spokesman said. "At the same time, Israel will continue to act with determination and decisiveness."

Assad accused Israel on Wednesday of pushing for war, drawing an angry response from Lieberman. "Our message must be clear to Assad. You will not just lose the next war, you and your family will lose power. Neither you nor the Assad family will remain in power," Lieberman said.

Lieberman, known for his tough rhetoric, said that Assad had "crossed a red line." Some lawmakers urged Netanyahu to dismiss him for threatening Syria, a northern enemy that has talked peace with Israel in the past.

Despite a spike in war talk in recent days, there have been no signs that military tensions have risen between Israel and Syria.

But in a bid to minimize the fallout from Lieberman's remarks, the prime minister's office issued a statement saying Netanyahu told his cabinet secretary to phone ministers and "ask them to avoid speaking in the media about Syria."

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told members of his Labor party that instead of "exchanging verbal blows," Israel and Syria should "sit together and talk through our envoys."

Assad had spoken out after Barak, sounding a cautionary note, said earlier this week that "the absence of an agreement with Syria could lead to armed conflict that could develop into all-out war."

Indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel, mediated by Turkey, broke down during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008.

Barak, as prime minister, held peace talks with Syria in 2000 that faltered over the future of the Golan Heights, a strategic Syrian plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 war. As defense chief, he has been pushing for new negotiations.

In Lebanon, the president of a UN tribunal set up to investigate the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri on Monday met President Michel Sleiman and other officials on his first visit to Lebanon.

Tribunal chief Antonio Cassese briefed Sleiman "on the progress the tribunal has made and the steps planned for the next phase of the investigation," a statement released by Sleiman's office said.

Cassese and his deputy, Ralph Riachy, also met Foreign Minister Ali Shami and Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar and were scheduled to meet parliament speaker Nabih Berri during their week-long visit.

In order to preserve the tribunal's impartiality, Cassese and Riachy will not meet Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the slain premier, or Defense Minister Elias Murr "because of the personal link they have with cases that may fall under the tribunal's jurisdiction," Cassese's office said in a statement prior to his visit.

Murr was also a minister in Rafiq Hariri's cabinet.

The tribunal was set up by a UN Security Council resolution in 2007 to try suspects in the assassination of Hariri, killed in a massive bomb blast on the Beirut seafront in February 2005.

The bombing was widely blamed on Syria although Damascus has denied any involvement. A UN commission of inquiry said it had found evidence to implicate Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services but there are currently no suspects in custody.