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Ehud Olmert and Bashar Assad did not shake hands at a Paris conference, but Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas met to advance peace.

Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Assad, the president of Syria, sat at the same table during the conference, though Assad was not present during Olmert’s speech to the gathering.

Olmert and Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, met Sunday in Paris on the sidelines of a meeting of 43 foreign leaders to launch the Union for the Mediterranean, which is designed to bring the countries of the region into closer cooperation.

“It seems to me that we have never been as close to the possibility of reaching an accord as we are today,” Olmert told reporters during a joint news conference with Abbas and French President Nicolas Sarkozy following the meeting.

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.” Following the news conference, Sarkozy told journalists that in his meeting the day before with Assad, he discussed the Syrian leader’s potential contribution to the freeing of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, also a French citizen, who has been held by Hamas since 2006.

Sarkozy also told reporters that he asked Assad to “bring him proof” that Iran was not planning to build nuclear weapons.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni addressed a meeting of foreign ministers. The Syrian foreign minister left the conference hall before Livni could begin her speech, Y-net reported, but representatives of other Arab countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel remained.

“I know that part of the conference participants view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an obstacle on the way to promoting joint projects, but I do not accept this,” Livni said. “Cooperation and joint ventures contribute to the leaders’ ability to make decisions. We have more common challenges in the region than conflicts.”

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