PM to Assad: Don't delay direct talks

In Paris conference, Olmert also promises Abbas he'll release more Palestinian prisoners.

olmert paris 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert paris 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
PARIS - Not only did Syrian President Bashar Assad neither meet with nor shake Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's hand at Sunday's Mediterranean Union meeting in Paris, but he left the room where Olmert spoke some 20 minutes before the prime minister's speech began. Instead, Olmert - according to diplomatic sources - sent a message to the Syrian president through Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that it would be a mistake for Assad to wait until after the inauguration of a new US president in January to begin direct negotiations. Assad, who to a large extent was the "star" of the Paris Summit for the Mediterranean judging by the press attention he drew, said Saturday after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that direct talks with Israel would have to wait until after a new US president was voted in. Olmert, according to Israeli sources, told Erdogan during their meeting to pass on to Assad - whom Erdogan met later in the afternoon - that waiting until a new US administration was in place did not mean only waiting until inauguration on January 20, but rather well beyond, since the US administration would need time to develop its policies on the Middle East. "We are talking about at least another six months," the Israeli official quoted the prime minister as telling Erdogan. "Now is the time to move forward." The official said Israel's position was that any deal that would be agreed upon by Israel and Syria before the end of President George W. Bush's term would be acceptable to any US administration. In an interview with France-2 television, Assad said Sunday that Middle East peace was unavoidable. "We have no other choice than peace," he said, adding that he doubted it would be realizable in coming months. Assad absented himself from the hall in Paris's Grand Palais where Olmert said that Israel was committed to continuing negotiations with the Palestinians and "the Arab states that have not yet signed peace agreements with us." While Olmert did not have the much discussed handshake with Assad, Ynet reported that MK Ahmed Tibi, who attended the Paris meeting, did greet Assad and shake his hand. Even though Israel and Syria are currently holding indirect talks through Turkish mediation, Assad was not the only Syrian official to walk out of a meeting before an Israeli speech. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem also left the hall minutes before Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke to the assembled foreign ministers. Muallem also ignored Israeli journalists who shouted questions at him while he was walking to a meeting. While no Israeli-Syrian meeting was held, Olmert did meet Qatar's Emir Hamad bin Khalif al-Thani for a 30-minute discussion that, according to Israeli officials, focused on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks. Livni, meanwhile, met her counterparts from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, as well as with chief Palestinian Authority negotiator Ahmed Qurei. The Qurei meeting came alongside a meeting held in the Elysee Palace between Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The two leaders met both privately, and together with Sarkozy, as well as with Livni and Qurei. Olmert, during that meeting, promised Abbas that Israel would release an undetermined number of Palestinian security prisoners as a "good will" gesture. Diplomatic officials said this promise was made so that Abbas would also get credit on the Palestinian street for winning the release of Palestinian prisoners, following Israel's promise to release prisoners to Hizbullah in the deal for Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. One Israeli official said that Olmert told Abbas, who raised the issue, that the numbers would go "above and beyond" what was being discussed in the other prisoner swaps. Israel has reportedly agreed to release some 450 Palestinian prisoners for the return of kidnapped soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit from the Gaza Strip, though the identity of those prisoners is still being negotiated. And it is not yet clear how many Palestinians prisoner would be released at the end of the swap for Regev and Goldwasser. The officials said that Olmert and Abbas discussed the status of the Israeli-Palestinian talks, with Olmert saying that the time was nearing when the leaders would have to step in and make difficult decisions. The prime minister said as much during the statement he made to the press alongside Sarkozy and Abbas. "We have never been as close to an agreement as we are now," Olmert said. "We are approaching the moment when we will have to make hard, difficult decisions that will take us to a stage we have never reached before." Olmert said that he was pleased that both Israel and the Palestinians would be able to use the assistance of France, alongside that of the US, in reaching that stage. Abbas said that the current talks were "serious," that both sides "want to achieve peace," and that he hoped that an agreement would be hammered out "in a couple of months." He said that Middle East peace was a basis for world peace, and that without it the world faced continued instability. Sarkozy, who grasped the two leaders' hands when they finished addressing the press and seemed to revel in the photo opportunity that cast him in the role of a central player in the Middle East, spoke dreamily of a day when the countries surrounding the Mediterranean would once again "love one another,instead of hating and waging war against each other." He said that the fact the Arab leaders around the Mediterranean, with the exception of Libya, agreed to sit around the same table with Israeli representatives made the day an "historic" one. While Olmert indeed sat around the same table with Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, it was a huge table arranged in alphabetical order in a way that ensured that Israel was nowhere near Lebanon or Syria. Sarkozy said that France and Europe needed to play a greater role in the diplomatic process in the Middle East, and that he was likely to return to the area before the end of France's rotating presidency of the EU, a term that started on July 1 and will conclude at the end of the year. Sarkozy told reporters Sunday that during his meeting with Assad a day earlier he made it clear that the release of Schalit, who holds both Israeli and French citizenship, was a key to diplomatic negotiations. He also said that leverage could be brought on Assad to pressure Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, headquartered in Damascus, to release Schalit. Olmert is expected to meet Monday with Gerhard Konrad, the German mediator who has mediated the prisoner swap for Goldwasser and Regev, before taking part - along with other leaders at the summit - in events celebrating Bastille Day. He is also expected to have a number of other diplomatic meetings, before leaving for Israel in the early evening.