Progress at Club Med: Olmert on summit: never been closer to peace

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Every Arab country in attendance at the first Union for the Mediterranean summit was willing to sit in the same room with Israel.

“The fact that we were all in the same room is already a lot,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a July 13 press conference, sidestepping Libya’s decision to skip the summit and Syria’s rebuffing of all Israeli advances.

Participants at the Paris summit approved six projects, ranging from cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea to launching a business development initiative for the region. But peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — and Israel and Syria — seemed to be the de facto purpose of the summit.

According to Sarkozy, all 43 nations in attendance — which included members of the European Union and non-Mediterranean nations such as Jordan and Syria — agreed to an accord to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

However, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French radio that the accord needed to be amended due to an Israeli and Palestinian disagreement.

Kouchner said the conflict was over the definition of Israel as a Jewish homeland.

The Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad al Maliki, told the AFP news agency that “Israel insisted on including the mention of a ‘state for the Jewish people,’ to which we are categorically opposed.”

However, an Israeli spokesperson told the AFP that Israel “agreed with everything that was adopted in the declaration because it was done through consensus.”

Despite the semantic obstacles, many are trumpeting the summit’s successes. Sarkozy hosted a meeting July 14 with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. A day earlier, Syrian President Bashar Assad met with Sarkozy and the new president of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, to discuss peace in the region.

“It seems to me that we have never been closer to the possibility of a peace accord than we are today,” Olmert told reporters.

Abbas said, “It is in all of our interests to reach [peace] … We should achieve peace for the people of the Middle East in general, but also for peace in the world.”

At the July 13 press conference, Assad sat opposite Olmert at a large circular table set in alphabetical order so the disputing politicians were not placed side by side. The leaders did not meet one on one, nor did they shake hands.

Afterward, Sarkozy dismissed rumors that Assad stepped out before Olmert’s closed-door speech to member states, insisting that the event went off “without an incident.”

But Israeli officials said Assad snubbed Olmert, just hours after the prime minister sent the Syrian leader a message pleading for direct talks between their nations before a new American administration takes office in January 2009, and insisting on his “serious” desire for peace.

The officials, who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said, “Olmert sat through and listened to everything Assad said, but Assad left when Olmert spoke.” The officials were citing Israeli officials in the conference room at the time.

Olmert had told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he was “extremely serious in his desire to move forward in peace talks” with Syria, according to Israeli officials. Syria and Israel are holding indirect talks through Turkey.

Assad and other Arab statesmen also apparently refused to be photographed in a group picture with Olmert.

A Reuters photographer captured a photo of Olmert apparently trying to catch Assad’s attention while Assad blocks his face with his hand to avoid eye contact.

Assad also reportedly tried to avoid being photographed with Olmert during a Bastille Day celebration July 14, when summit participants were invited to watch the annual parade down the Champs-Elysees.

Following a July 12 meeting with Sarkozy, a visibly cheerful Assad told reporters that he wanted France to help mediate direct talks between Israel and Syria with the United States when a new American president takes office next year.

Sarkozy told journalists that during his meeting with Assad he discussed the Syrian leader’s ability to help free kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is also a French citizen, held captive by Hamas since 2006.

In a Bastille Day speech, Sarkozy said he would take steps to free Shalit.

“We’re going to mobilize to get him out,” he said.

Israel and Syria have raised the specter of direct talks but there have been no agreements.

Olmert said he hoped the indirect talks with Turkey would be upgraded to direct talks “in the future,” but added that “the Syrian track will under no circumstances come at the expense of the Palestinian talks, which are of utmost importance to us.”

Assad’s visit to France, a first since Syria and France froze ties in 2005, marks his newly improved relationship with Europe.