PARIS – France urged a 43-nation Union for the Mediterranean to tackle 21st century challenges including the array of Middle East issues, which remained a hot topic of discussion at a launch summit on Sunday.
On the sidelines, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, after which Olmert said the two sides had never been so close to a peace accord.
"The goal of this summit for the Mediterranean, of this Union for the Mediterranean, is that we learn to love each other instead of continuing to hate each other and wage war," Sarkozy told a joint news conference with Olmert and Abbas.
"The fact that everyone will be in the same room for the same meeting is in itself an historic event," he said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended the opening conference with over 40 other leaders including Olmert — the first time Israeli and Syrian leaders will have been in the same room. The two countries recently began indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation.
That diplomatic breakthrough, and an agreement on Saturday to exchange embassies with Lebanon for the first time, enabled Assad to emerge from isolation in the West three years after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which many believe was orchestrated from Damascus.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said it was time the region put years of strife behind it and forge new ties with European Union states on the pressing issues of the day.
France and Egypt will be the first countries to co-chair the new body, but details such as the location and powers of its secretariat remain to be resolved, and the Middle East conflicts that bedeviled past EU-Mediterranean cooperation loom large.
Sarkozy was able to boast that all the leaders of the southern Mediterranean region except Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi would be present, whereas only one attended a 2005 Euro-Mediterranean summit in Barcelona.
Egypt Calls for Peace
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called for Israelis and Palestinians to step up their efforts to reach a peace deal, at the opening of a Mediterranean summit in Paris.
"I call on (Palestinian) president Abu Mazen (Abbas), and (Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert, to pursue the path of negotiations to bring about total and global peace, to create an independent Palestinian state and open a new page in the Middle Eastern region," Mubarak said.
Abbas said that Sarkozy’s "friendship" with both Israelis and Palestinians would enable him "to play an important role to help the peace process succeed in a few months."
According to a source close to the prime minister, Olmert promised Abbas to release a new group of Palestinian prisoners as "a gesture" of good will.
Lebanon and Syria
The French leader booked a first success on Saturday when he hosted talks between Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who agreed to normalize relations between Damascus and Beirut for the first time since independence in 1943.
The Syrian leader accepted a deal mediated by the emir of Qatar in May to pull Lebanon back from the brink of civil war, leading to the election of Suleiman and the appointment of a government of national unity on Friday.
Assad said he did not expect direct negotiations with Israel for the next six months until U.S. President George W. Bush is out of office because the current administration was not interested in Middle East peace.
Despite the mood of goodwill, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem left the room when Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni addressed the preparatory meeting, leaving a junior official in Syria’s seat, witnesses said.
An Israeli official said Livni and Moualem exchanged glances but there was no direct conversations.
An aide quoted the Israeli minister as telling the meeting: "I know that some of the members of this conference see the conflict as an obstacle … I cannot accept this. I look at my neighbors and see first and foremost neighbors."
(Agencies via Alarabiya)