PARIS (JTA) – It was the snub of the day.
Despite overtures by Israel’s prime minister to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Assad refused to acknowledge, shake hands, be photographed with or listen to Ehud Olmert when the two shared a conference room at Sunday’s Union for the Mediterranean in Paris.
Just hours before the Paris summit, Olmert sent Assad a message pressing for direct talks between the two countries before a new U.S. administration takes office, and insisting on his “serious” desire for peace.
Israel and Syria are engaged in indirect peace talks through mediation by Turkey, which delivered Olmert’s latest message to Assad.
But Assad chose to rebuff Olmert rather than engage in any rapprochement with him at the 43-nation Paris confab.
“We are not seeking symbols,” Assad told a French TV station, saying he avoided a handshake with Olmert because Syria and Israel are still only in indirect peace talks.
In some ways, the elaborate conference held at the Grand Palais, an imposing Art Nouveau structure with a glass roof and pale green arches, served to highlight the long road left to go before Israel is recognized by some of its Arab neighbors in the Mediterranean region.
Several Arab leaders refused to be photographed with the Israeli leader, so there was no joint photo at the meeting’s end.
A Reuters photographer captured a shot of Olmert apparently trying to catch Assad’s attention while Assad blocks his face with his hand to avoid eye contact.
On Monday, an Israeli official said in an interview with JTA that although “Olmert sat through and listened to everything Assad said” during the Syrian leader’s speech at the conference, “Assad left when Olmert spoke.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy denied that any intentional snub took place Sunday. Assad reportedly left the conference room for hallway consultations a half-hour before Olmert spoke.
Last week, Israeli and French officials had expressed hopes that some sort of direct contact between Assad and Olmert might take place at the weekend summit.
Before the conference, Olmert asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to convey to Assad that Olmert is “extremely serious in his desire to move forward in peace talks” with Syria, Israeli officials said.
Despite the undiplomatic maneuvering, attendees and observers noted that the broad participation in the conference may have helped lay a foundation for improved dialogue and cooperation in the region.
The leaders of such countries as Syria, Algeria, Morocco and Israel all shared a common table, and they reached some concrete agreements toward improving cooperation on regional issues.
Assad’s cold shoulder wasn’t the only snub at the conference. Morocco’s king reportedly skipped a meeting attended by the president of Algeria due to the rivalry between the two countries.
Despite Assad’s avoidance of Olmert, Assad told Al-Jazeera TV on Sunday that he wants to “normalize” relations with Israel once a peace accord is reached.