Sarkozy invites Olmert and Assad to Paris

Olmert expresses willingness to attend conference; Washington opposes invitation to Syrian president.

sarkozy 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
sarkozy 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad are likely to attend the same conference in Paris in July, but Israeli diplomatic officials played down the significance on Wendesday, saying the conference would deal with regional Mediterranean issues rather than bilateral Israeli-Syrian ones. Nevertheless, if the two leaders do attend the summit for potential members of a union of Mediterranean states that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to get off the ground, it will mark the first time the two will have attended the same conference, and their very presence together will inevitably attract a great deal of attention in light of the indirect talks currently taking place between Israel and Syria. Diplomatic officials said Wednesday that Israel had already made clear it would attend the conference, and that it was likely Syria would attend as well in an effort to improve its status in Europe. The officials said it was also likely that following Sarkozy's visit to Lebanon earlier this week, Lebanon would also take part in the summit, which is planned to be at the level of heads of government. Sarkozy's original idea, an idea he put forward even before he was elected last year, was to bring 20 countries around the Mediterranean into one regional union. That idea not only ruffled some feathers in the EU, with some concerned the new union could eventually be a rival, but it also led to competition among the Arab states involved regarding leadership positions in the new union. The EU wants to see the union as an extension of the Barcelona process, and a grouping that would including all EU states and the non-EU countries along the Mediterranean. In addition, some of the Arab candidate states, such as Algeria and Libya, want to ensure that Israel's participation in the new body would not lead to a normalization of ties between them and Israel. Meanwhile, Israeli and Syrian negotiators are expected to meet in Turkey next week to continue indirect negotiations that were made public three weeks ago. Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev would not provide any information on either the locale or the date for renewal of the talks, saying only that they would be "ongoing and continuous." Israel will be represented by Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, and his foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman, while the Syrian team will be headed up by Riad Daoudi, a legal expert in the Syrian Foreign Ministry, and Sami Taqi, head of a think tank in Damascus considered close to the government. The Turkish mediators are Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leading foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutog'lu, and Feridun Sinirlioglu, a former Turkish ambassador to Israel who is currently the deputy undersecretary in the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Lebanon, meanwhile, put Israel on notice Wednesday that it had no intention of joining the Syrians in any kind of negotiations with Israel, a day after Olmert said that he would be interested in such talks. AFP reported that the Lebanese government issued a statement Wednesday saying that "there are pending bilateral issues between Lebanon and Israel which are governed by international resolutions which Israel must respect... and which cannot be the object of political negotiations." According to the statement, Israel "must respect Lebanon's sovereignty over its territory and its water, release prisoners and provide maps on mines and cluster bombs" left in Lebanon during past conflicts. Olmert sent a clear message to the Lebanese at Tuesday's weekly cabinet meeting when he said he would have been happy had the announcement of indirect talks with the Syrians been accompanied by an expression of readiness on Lebanon's part to enter into bilateral talks with Israel as well. "I see much advantage in that," Olmert said.