PM off to Paris for Mediterranean forum

Officials say no Olmert-Assad meeting planned; Sarkozy: Syria, Lebanon to open embassies here.

Bashar Assad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bashar Assad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left late Saturday night for Paris and the launching of the Union for the Mediterranean, where he will be sitting around a table with - but not next to - Syrian President Bashar Assad. Diplomatic officials said there were no plans for a meeting or even a chance handshake between the two, saying that the Syrians view a meeting or any gesture as a "prize" to be given to Israel at the end of a diplomatic process, not at the very beginning. Assad says his country wants progress in discussions with Israel but that it may be unlikely under the current US administration, saying a news conference in Paris on Saturday that the current US leadership has had "no interest" in Mideast peace, and Syria "is waiting for the next administration." Assad added that he wants indirect talks with Israel to move toward "the next step" of holding direct discussions, but that the conditions are not yet ready. Turkey is now mediating indirect discussions. Olmert and Assad will be among some 40 heads of government from the EU and the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea attending the launching of the new organization, the brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Only Libya has said that it would not attend because of Israel's involvement, with Turkey - which feels the Union is an attempt to keep it out of gaining full membership into the EU - having not yet decided whether to attend, or at what level. Seating around the table at the glass-domed Grand Palais will be by alphabetical order, with Israel seated next to Ireland and Italy. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that Olmert was scheduled to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the meeting. No other meeting with other Arab leaders had yet been scheduled, the officials said. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is co-chairman of the meeting. In addition the leaders of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and new Lebanese President Michel Suleiman are all slated to attend. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has not hidden her ambitions to replace Olmert as Kadima leader, will also attend the conference, flying to Paris on Olmert's plane. Although there has not been any pre-announcement of any meetings between Livni and Arab leaders, she is expected to meet with some of her Mediterranean counterparts, perhaps from Morocco and Tunisia. Olmert is scheduled to return late Monday night. Sarkozy announced on Saturday that Syria and Lebanon would open embassies in each other's countries. The nations have not had full-fledged embassies in each other's countries since Lebanon became independent in 1943 and Syria in 1945. Earlier, Suleiman, Lebanon's new president, said he wanted to establish diplomatic ties with Syria, calling for a major shift in long-hostile relations between the neighbors. "We want an exchange of ambassadors and diplomatic relations with Syria," Suleiman told reporters at the French presidential palace. He said he was "satisfied" with relations with Syria and that a visit there is "still on the agenda." The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since 2005, when former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed. Syria's critics accuse Damascus of having a role in the slaying, a charge Syria denies. Damascus dominated Lebanon for nearly three decades before the outcry over Hariri's 2005 slaying forced it to withdraw its troops from the neighboring country. Assad said last month that establishing diplomatic ties with Lebanon would be possible if a national unity cabinet was formed in Beirut. Such a government, including members of Syria's ally Hizbullah, was formed Friday after weeks of haggling. New Lebanese-Syrian diplomatic ties would be a boost for Sarkozy. Assad and Suleiman both met separately with Sarkozy on Saturday before joint talks hosted by Sarkozy and mediated by the emir of Qatar. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, meanwhile, said Saturday a "wind of hope" is in the air around the Sunday summit and urged leaders present to push for progress on Middle East peace talks. But, he said, "I'm sorry to say, talks between the Israelis and Palestinians are not part of this wind of hope." Still, he said, "I believe that even being around the same table is... the beginning of something." Sarkozy's meeting with Assad was also exceptional, the first such high-level French-Syrian meeting in years. Ties between Paris and Damascus soured over the assassination of Hariri, who was close to French leaders. Suleiman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan all expressed hope separately Saturday that the summit would increase chances for stability in the region. Sarkozy also met with Mubarak on Saturday to discuss the summit, which the two men will co-chair. The event will be capped Monday with dozens of leaders attending France's national Bastille Day military parade as special guests. Sarkozy hoped the Mediterranean Union would become a pillar of his presidency and France's leadership of the European Union, which it holds until the end of the year. But it overlaps with expensive European projects in progress. The new union is to include at least 43 nations, all of which are sending a president or prime minister to the summit. Libya, whose leader Muammar Gaddafi has objected to the whole idea, is sending a minister as observer. AP contributed to this report.