Assad: Damascus has 'no choice but peace'

Syrian leader avoids Olmert as Sarkozy revels in his summit success on the Seine.

olmert behind assad 224. (photo credit: AP)
olmert behind assad 224.
(photo credit: AP)
Forty-three nations, including Israel and various Arab states, agreed in the course of the past two days to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. But even as their leaders launched an unprecedented "Union for the Mediterranean" aimed at securing peace across the region, deep divisions surfaced during the summit talks, highlighting how hard it will be to parlay the meeting's goodwill and words into real progress. Syria's President Bashar Assad refused to shake hands with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "We are not seeking symbols," Assad said on French television. There was no joint photograph at the meeting's end because some Arab leaders refused to be photographed with Olmert, and Morocco's king snubbed the meeting altogether because it was attended by the president of rival Algeria. Still, Assad did acknowledge that Israel and Syria were moving toward reconciliation. "We have no other choice but peace," he told France-2 TV. And he suggested that, once direct Israeli-Syrian talks were launched, a complete peace accord could take six months to two years to implement if both sides were "serious." Summit host Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, reveled at having brought so many leaders to the same table for the first time. "We dreamed about a Union for the Mediterranean, and now it is a reality," Sarkozy said in closing the summit in a palace abutting the River Seine. He called it an "extremely moving, very important moment." In a final declaration, the nations represented at the summit - including Israel, Syria, the Palestinian Territories and countries across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa - agreed to "pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction." The statement said that included nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems, and that the countries will "consider practical steps to prevent the proliferation" of such weapons. It was unclear, however, how the signatories would enforce the pledge. Israeli officials said that there was nothing new in the declaration about nuclear arms, and that it was little more than a "regurgitation" of similar declarations that have come out of similar meetings, such the Barcelona Process which the current Mediterranean unit will now supplant. "It is the same language we have seen in the past," one official said. "It doesn't mean anything new." Olmert met on Monday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Both sets of talks, according to Israeli officials, dealt with Hizbullah's build-up in Lebanon, and the need to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for an end to arms transfers into Lebanon. Olmert told the UN Secretary-General that Israel is willing to discuss the future of Shaba Farms and all other relevant issues with Lebanon in direct negotiations. The prime minister also stressed that the smuggling of arms by Syria into Lebanon is unacceptable and more has to be done to stop it. Israeli officials also said Olmert discussed with his Italian counterpart ways to upgrade Israeli-Italian bilateral relations, as well as bilateral EU-Israeli ties. The summit's closing declaration condemned "terrorism in all its forms" and announced six major projects, from a common university and easier travel visas for students to reducing pollution in the Mediterranean sea and promoting solar power. It also spoke of democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms - values Western critics have accused such union members as Syria of violating. Sarkozy said the four-hour talks were successful and lively. "There were disagreements ... but we're all there," Sarkozy said. Assad left the enormous table before Olmert gave his speech to the more than 40 leaders seated around it, Israeli government officials said. Sarkozy went to special efforts to bring Syria into the international fold for the summit: Assad met Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, separately, both for the first time. And he met Sarkozy, after years of chill between their countries. "We will build peace in the Mediterranean together, like yesterday we built peace in Europe," Sarkozy said. He insisted the new body would not be "north against south, not Europe against the rest... but united." Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, co-presiding at the summit with Sarkozy, called on the new union to tackle reducing the wealth "gap" between north and south, and cited other southern Mediterranean "challenges" such as education, food safety, health and social welfare. He said the union has better chances of success than the previous cooperation process launched in Barcelona in 1995 because the new body focuses on practical projects parallel to efforts toward Mideast peace. Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said he hoped the union would make it easier for North Africans to receive visas to Europe. "Our common sea should bring us closer together, not separate us," the president said in an interview with official Algerian news agency APS. He also questioned whether the union would have enough money to get things done. Germany's Merkel said, however, that the project would have the €13 billion that has not yet been spent from the Barcelona Process. The Union for the Mediterranean is Sarkozy's brainchild and was timed to coincide with the French presidency of the European Union. Paris holds the rotating post until the end of this year. But Sarkozy's ambitious plan overlapped with EU projects already in progress, and it was melded into EU efforts and expanded to include 27 members of the EU, not just those on the Mediterranean coast. The new union is to include at least 43 nations, nearly all of which sent a president or prime minister to the summit. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi objected to the whole idea and refused to come. The final declaration said the union is to be operational by the end of this year and will be jointly run by all its members. It will have a dual presidency, held jointly for rotating terms by one country within the European Union and one country on the Mediterranean shore.