Assad doesn't rule out meeting Olmert in Paris, but summit deemed unlikely

Israeli diplomatic officials said the chances of a meeting or even a handshake in Paris Sunday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad were almost nil, even though Assad had not completely closed the door on the idea in an interview published Tuesday in a French newspaper. Assad, in the interview with Le Figaro, neither committed himself nor closed the door on a meeting with Olmert. The two will be among some 40 heads of government taking part in the launch of a new Mediterranean Union, France's prized initiative which is to include EU and Mediterranean states in a new organization. However, Israeli officials said an Olmert-Assad meeting was extremely unlikely, since the Syrians have always viewed a top level meeting as something that would take place only after a peace agreement was reached, as a prize for Israel, and not something that would happen during the very early stages of negotiations. "If any kind of meeting did take place, it would signify a significant change in Syrian policy," the official said. Assad, meanwhile, indicated in the interview that he would like to see a greater role for France in the process, something that diplomatic officials said is to some extent annoying Turkey, which up to now has been the sole intermediary in the indirect talks between Israel and Syria. Turkey has not yet said whether it would take part in the Paris conference, but Turkish sources said that this had to do with concern that France was launching the new initiative in part to block Turkey's entrance into the EU, and had nothing to do with Ankara feeling it was being upstaged by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the Syrian-Israeli front. Nevertheless, Israeli diplomatic officials said that Sarkozy's "hyperactivity" has Ankara concerned that France might take over the lead in the Israeli-Syrian contacts. The country that serves as the mediator between Jerusalem and Damascus is sure to gain in terms of international prestige and stature, the officials said. Assad, meanwhile, said his planned visit this weekend to Paris would be "historic" as "it opens a large door [for Syria] to the international scene," according to the interview with Le Figaro. Asked if France could play an active role in direct Syrian-Israeli talks, Assad said he would know more after his meeting with Sarkozy on Saturday, the eve of the Mediterranean Union launch. If Sarkozy confirms his apparent enthusiasm for playing a part, Assad said, "I will ask him right away to directly support this peace process. Of course, I am speaking of direct talks." Syria suspended contacts with France in January, in retaliation for a similar move made by Sarkozy, who had accused Syria of blocking the election of a Lebanese president. On Israel, Assad said that "the two sides are testing their intentions." "We must find a common base to start direct negotiations. As soon as this base is ready, we can engage in direct negotiations with Israel," he said. He stressed the need for backing for any talks. "Of course, the role of the United States is essential, but that of Europe is complementary, and when we talk of the political role of Europe, France is in the avant-garde," he said. The administration of US President George W. Bush has "neither the will nor the vision" to move peace forward and its time is running out, Assad said. "We are counting on the next American president and his administration." Assad said he planned to meet at the Paris conference with Lebanon's new President Michel Suleiman, who was elected in May. "Preparations are under way to organize this meeting, which will take place in Paris," Assad said. Regarding Iran, Assad defended Syria's close ties with Teheran because "when you talk about problems and solutions, Iran is indispensable." He said he did not believe Iran was using its nuclear program for military aims, but said a solution to the stalemate must be political. "We are against the acquisition of nuclear arms, be it by Iran or all other countries in the region, particularly Israel," he said.