PARIS (JTA) – While the French-initiated summit for the Union for the Mediterranean did not produce any major breakthroughs, French President Nicolas Sarkozy recognized one achievement: every Arab country but Libya sitting down with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert..
“The fact that we were all in the same room is already a lot,” Sarkozy said at a news conference Sunday in the French capital following the inaugural summit.
Conference participants approved six projects and signed an accord that, among other things, talks of developing peace and fighting terrorism. All 43 nations also signed on to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Sarkozy underlined that much work still needed to be done to implement the projects.
Peace between Israel and Syria and the Palestinian Authority was a major focus of the event.
On Sunday, Sarkozy hosted a meeting of Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and a day earlier Syrian President Bashar Assad met with Sarkozy and the new president of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, to discuss peace in the region.
Olmert spoke about his morning discussion with Abbas.
“It seems to me that we have never been closer to the possibility of a peace accord than we are today,” Olmert told reporters.
“We are living through an essential and critical moment,” he said, evoking the “very serious negotiations” currently under way.
Abbas said at the news conference that “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.”
The summit, which aimed to normalize Israel’s relationship with its Mediterranean Arab neighbors through shared economic and cultural projects, was considered risky due to the huge differences among the participating nations.
Referring to critics who questioned the feasibility of the French-initiated project, Sarkozy asked in his opening remarks Sunday, “Who can live without taking risks?”
He added, “The very idea of life is that: to take risks. The risk we are taking in Europe is to extend a hand of friendship to [Egyptian] President [Hosni] Mubarak and to invite Prime Minister Olmert as a friend. If the risk we are taking is just that, extending a hand of friendship, and trying to construct peace, then it would have been an even greater risk not to have taken that risk.”
At the conference, Assad sat opposite Olmert at a large, circular table set in alphabetical order so the disputing countries 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 according to several diplomats and participants, Assad and Abbas left for meetings on the sidelines of the summit. Assad reportedly met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Israeli officials confirmed Monday that 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 and insisting on his “serious” desire for peace.
The officials, who could not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, told the JTA in an interview that “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, said Israeli officials. Syria and Israel are holding indirect talks through Turkey.
A European source reportedly confirmed that both Assad and Abbas were absent, but insisted their absence was “neither ostentatious, nor intended to create an incident.”
Mubarak wondered, “If Mr. Assad has things to do outside of the plenary session, what is the problem?”
Assad and 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 Monday’s Bastille Day national holiday, where Union for the Mediterranean participants were invited to watch the annual parade down the Champs-Elysees.
Following a Saturday meeting with Sarkozy, a visibly cheerful Assad told reporters that he wanted France to co-mediate any direct talks between Israel and Syria with the United States when a new American president takes office next year.
At a news conference Saturday, Sarkozy told reporters that he asked the Syrian leader to “bring him proof” that Iran was not planning to build nuclear weapons.
The next day Sarkozy told journalists that during his meeting with Assad, he discussed the Syrian leader’s potential contribution to the freeing of Israeli kidnapped 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,” the French president said after honoring Ingrid Betancourt, a French Colombian who was rescued recently after being held hostage for six years by Colombian rebels, with the Legion of Honor.
Assad is in a position to speak to Hamas on the subject because of Syria’s close ties to the group.
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, “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.
In his opening remarks Sunday, Mubarak said, “This new phase we’re entering into must be an age of peace in the Middle East, and I would invite Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert to pursue their peace negotiations in order to achieve total peace, and in order to establish an independent Palestinian state and to open a new era of peace in the Middle East.”
Mubarak, who was presiding over the conference with Sarkozy, called for a realistic approach to Sunday’s discussions while maintaining a new and positive outlook for improved negotiations.
“We must not overlook the consequences of the gap between the countries of the South and those of the North,” he said. “We must take a realistic view of that gap, but we must also approach it in a new spirit with a new philosophy.”
Following the conference, Sarkozy congratulated “the Arab countries for their courage” in accepting the invitation to join Israel at the discussion table.
Until last week it appeared that a handful of key Arab states, such as Algeria, would not attend the summit because of Israel’s presence and fears that northern European nations would take an upper hand in the conference, which initially did not include all of the European Union.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II and King Mohammed VI of Morocco sent senior representatives because of reported scheduling problems.
All the participants were invited to Monday’s Bastille Day celebrations, which at first incited an outcry from human rights activists who criticized Assad’s presence.
Sarkozy announced that the participants had adopted six projects that involve cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea, as well as creating maritime and land highways, civil protection programs, solar energy laboratories, a Euro-Mediterranean university and a business development initiative for the region.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French radio Europe 1 on Monday, however, that the accord needed to be amended due to an Israeli and Palestinian disagreement.
“At the last minute we failed, perhaps 30 minutes before the end, on one word,” Kouchner said.
He added that the text which Sarkozy lauded as being unanimously approved on Sunday “still needs to be corrected a little.”
Kouchner said the conflict was over the definition of Israel as a Jewish homeland and whether it should be called a “nation-state, a national and democratic state.”
“National implies a whole difficulty around the return of refugees to a state that is Jewish or not from a Palestinian state,” he said.
“The peace process, if it is going well at the summit, is not going well at its core,” Kouchner added in specific reference to trouble over Palestinian mobility in the region.
The final accord adopted Sunday says that “heads of state and government reaffirm their support for the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, as referred to in the Lisbon Euromed Ministerial Meeting (November 2007) and according to the Annapolis process.”
Neither the Lisbon or Annapolis agreements refer to a “nation-state.”
The Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad Al-Maliki told the AFP news agency Monday that “Israel insisted on including the mention of a ‘state for the Jewish people,’ to which we are categorically opposed.”
“We would have liked the final declaration on this point to be more clear,” Al-Maliki said.
However, an Israeli spokesperson told the AFP that Israel “agreed with everything that was adopted in the declaration because it was done through consensus.”
“In four hours we couldn’t solve everything,” Sarkozy joked Sunday, “but now we need to develop [discussions] and go farther.”