Assad: Meeting with Olmert premature

Has world guessing whether he'll shake PM's hand; Olmert says he aims to pry Syria out of "Axis of Evil."

Assad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Assad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Three months after Syrian President Bashar Assad was unable, because of his international isolation, to get numerous Arab leaders to attend an Arab League conference in Damascus, he is the focus of international speculation as to whether he will agree to shake Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's hand at a regional conference in Paris next month. "By announcing indirect talks with Syria, Olmert has succeeded in lifting Assad's isolation," one government source said on Thursday. Assad, during a four-day visit to India, told reporters that the time was not ripe for a direct meeting with Olmert at the conference that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hosting on July 13 to launch a new union of EU states and other countries around the Mediterranean. "This is not like drinking tea," Assad said. "The meeting between me and the Israeli prime minister will be meaningless without the technocrats laying the foundation, without reaching the final stage." Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem ruled out not just a meeting, but even a simple hand shake, telling the London-based newspaper pan-Arab A-Sharq al-Awsat, "The arrangements regarding the conference indicate that there will not be a shaking of hands between them." On Wednesday, Sarkozy's chief of staff Claude Gueant told Europe1 radio, "We see now Mr. Olmert is suggesting that the summit of the 13th could be an opportunity for direct contacts." Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman were in Paris earlier in the week, but sources in Gueant's office said they were preparing for Sarkozy's trip next week to Israel, and not planning a meeting in Paris with Assad. Olmert, meanwhile, said in a joint interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, the French daily Le Figaro and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald published on Thursday that the talks with Syria were aimed at prying it out of the "Axis of Evil." "The fact that Syria has positioned itself as part of the Axis of Evil and has sabotaged a political system in Lebanon and has supported Hamas and has facilitated terror against America in Iraq is something that can either be changed by a violent confrontation or by a political process. And I think that if there is a chance for a political process it should be tried," Olmert said in the interview, posted on Der Spiegel's Web site. Olmert said the negotiations, currently being carried out through Turkish mediators, would become direct "soon enough." "Of course right now the Syrians say that they will not separate from Iran. But the very fact that they will make peace with Israel will change the realities of the region in a meaningful manner. I mean business, I want to do it and I will continue to make the necessary efforts," he said. As for the chances of meeting Assad in Paris, Olmert said, "I promised President Sarkozy that I would come to his event. More I can't say because I am not the organizer. I will definitely be happy to be the president's guest in Paris. He may know the rest better than you and me."