Will Mediterranean union advance peace?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, being greeted in Israel on June 22, 2008 by President Shimon Peres, says he wants the Mediterranean union to include great focus on bridging gaps between Israel and its Arab neighbors. (Brian Hendler )

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, being greeted in Israel on June 22, 2008 by President Shimon Peres, says he wants the Mediterranean union to include great focus on bridging gaps between Israel and its Arab neighbors. (Brian Hendler )

PARIS (JTA) – Just days before his summit to launch the Union of the Mediterranean, French President Nicolas Sarkozy scored two key diplomatic victories for his initiative to bind some disparate nations around shared geopolitical, economic and security goals.

Sarkozy secured the participation of Algeria, which had expressed fears that the summit was a first step toward normalizing ties with Israel, and he managed to schedule a one-on-one meeting between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The participation of every Mediterranean country except Libya has boosted prospects for the July 13 conference, which some skeptics have warned will be watered down in the face of criticism and avoid sensitive but critical political issues.

Sarkozy announced Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s attendance Monday while at the G8 conference in Japan.

“President Bouteflika has the experience and authority which makes his presence around the table for the Union for the Mediterranean summit indispensable for the success of the summit,” Sarkozy told reporters.

Originally heralded by Sarkozy as a way to bring together the Mediterranean’s diverse nations in an institution modeled on the European Union, the Mediterranean project had been derided by some observers as a naive attempt to unite politically hostile nations and would serve only to highlight Sarkozy’s diplomatic ineptitude. Critics said it would harm France’s credibility as a potential Middle East peace broker.

The idea was introduced before Sarkozy was elected and did not involve serious, behind-the-scenes negotiations with prospective member countries – a step that was crucial to the European Union’s formation.

In March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully pushed for modifying the initial idea and including E.U. participation rather than limiting it to countries with a Mediterranean shoreline.

Sarkozy has said he wants the union to focus as much on bridging gaps between Israel and its Arab neighbors as on improving ties between northern Europe and states bordering the Mediterranean Sea, notably Turkey.

More than 40 nations will attend Sunday’s conference.

Even though a hoped-for meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad is considered unlikely, many hope the union will enable Europe and France–which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union– to encourage dialogue within the Mediterranean region and bring together disparate nations around some concrete projects.

“If we manage to create a new spirit of dialogue, and if the Mediterranean and other countries manage to work together, it will be a great achievement,” said Sylvie Goulard, the president of the French section of the E.U. advocacy group European Movement and author of a new book focusing on the Union of the Mediterranean. “I share the view that we should not refrain from doing something simply because it is considered utopian.”

The conference agenda includes workshops covering environmental, economic, educational and security projects. One workshop will cover “political dialogue,” a spokesman for Sarkozy told JTA, countering reports that the summit would sidestep sensitive political topics.

The union will be led by a rotating dual presidency, starting with France and Egypt. Israeli leaders have expressed their support for the project.

While concerns persist ahead of next week’s conference that it would focus more on photo opportunities than substance, some in France’s Jewish community view the summit as a sign of future improvements in Arab-Israeli ties.

“This conference is fascinating,” said French Jewish sociologist and historian Jacques Tarnero. “I think Sarkozy wants to use the Mediterranean union to have Israel accepted by its Arab neighbors.”

“He’s taking a huge risk,” he added. “There is a minimum that Arab states along the Mediterranean need to accept in this project, and that minimum is Israel. But I’m not sure the Arabs want to play along.”

Olivier Roy, a Middle East studies expert at the Study Center for International Research in Paris, said invitations to leaders such as Assad and the concession of bringing together dictatorships with democracies is risky.

“A concession shows weakness if nothing happens as a result,” Roy said. “You can’t ignore the conflict between these countries.”

Sarkozy is taking the gamble. In recent speeches in Israel and earlier this year in North Africa, the French president pointed to his Union of the Mediterranean project as the centerpiece of France’s role as peacemaker in the region.

“Having the conference for the Union of the Mediterranean, giving a speech at the Knesset, going to lunch with the president of the Palestinian Authority – it’s all the same thing, it’s the same political platform, it’s the same desire that France put its history, its power, its knowledge at the service of peace,” Sarkozy told Israeli entrepreneurs in a June visit to Jerusalem.

At the conference, participating nations will choose four to six concrete projects from some 550 proposals, said the Sarkozy spokesman, who insisted on anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the conference.

Among the proposed projects are those focusing on the shortage of drinking water in the region and creating a Mediterranean version of the European student exchange program Erasmus, the spokesman said.

“There is a political importance present in all of the projects,” the spokesman said. “The idea is to bring together as many countries as possible on these issues. That in itself is progress.”

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