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Sarkozy  Launches   Mediterranean
Union  &   seeks   Progress   on
Middle  East  Peace

PARIS, July 13, 2008

Leaders of 43 nations with nearly 800 million inhabitants inaugurated a new “Union for the Mediterranean” on Sunday, meant to bring the northern and southern countries that ring the sea closer together through practical projects dealing with the environment, climate, transport, immigrattion and policing.

But the meeting was also an opportunity for French President Nicolas Sarkozy to exercise some highly public Middle East diplomacy, by bringing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria out of isolation for a controversial Élysée Palace meeting and by acting as host to a session between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The Union for the Mediterranean is the brainchild of Mr. Sarkozy, but his original conception was watered down to include all members of the European Union, not just those along the Mediterranean seaboard. Nor does the new union have any political conditions for membership, sharply reducing the possibility of influencing policy changes or promoting more respect for human rights among the governments here.

But the enlargement of the group to the north has made it easier for Mr. Sarkozy to include some southern countries, like Syria and Israel, that remain in a formal state of war with one another, and others, like Jordan, which are only notionally Mediterranean. The group is disparate one, including Turkey, Greece, Germany, Montenegro and Morocco.

The union has northern and southern co-presidents — to start, Mr. Sarkozy and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — and plans to create a permanent secretariat from north and south. But leaders still disagree about where the headquarters will be and about the nationality of the union’s secretary-general, and some of its financing remains vague.

Still, Mr. Sarkozy said on Sunday night, praising the participants: “Today the way is open, and no one can take that away from us.”

The large gathering was a significant accomplishment for French diplomacy, with only Libya refusing to attend and the Kings of Morocco and Jordan pleading other engagements. But other than Libya, all other countries were represented by heads of state or prime ministers.

While initial accomplishments are likely to be vague, the meeting marked an end to the diplomatic isolation of Mr. Assad, who has been ostracized for his alliance with Iran, his support for Palestinian groups classified by the United States and the European Union as terrorist, and his country’s alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.

Mr. Hariri was a close friend of the previous French president, Jacques Chirac, who bitterly condemned Mr. Sarkozy’s welcome for Mr. Assad and refused to attend the ceremonies. Mr. Assad’s invitation to watch the Bastille Day military parade on Monday has also angered some in the French military, who have been deployed at times in Lebanon, France’s former colony and traditional ally, which Syria dominates, and who currently serve as United Nations peace-keepers there.

Syria also attended the American-led Middle East summit at Annapolis, Md., last November, but its delegation was led by its deputy foreign minister. Since then, Israel and Syria have opened serious but indirect peace talks with Turkish mediation, and Mr. Assad is eager to rejoin the world, especially with a new American president to be elected later this year. Mr. Sarkozy offered him a private meeting and full honors, arguing, “How can you make peace if you don’t talk to people with different opinions?”

Still, the invitation to Mr. Assad, like an earlier one to the Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy, has reignited French domestic criticism of Mr. Sarkozy’s apparent failure to live up to his avowed “moral foreign policy.” When elected, he chose a noted rights advocate,

Bernard Kouchner, as his foreign minister and created a new post of secretary of state for human rights.

The leader of the opposition Socialists, François Hollande, said that Mr. Assad’s participation in the union was fine, “but his presence at the 14th of July is inappropriate — to have a dictator at a celebration of human rights hurts a number of sensibilities,” including those of the French military, whose soldiers will parade before him.

The French military is none too happy with Mr. Sarkozy right now in any case, because of his announced cuts in military personnel and his denunciation of commanders as “amateurs” after an accidental shooting of civilians at a barracks last month.

“This visit is, for me, a historic visit, an opening toward France and Europe,” Mr. Assad told Le Figaro, the French daily. On Saturday, Mr. Sarkozy claimed a success when Mr. Assad and the new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, agreed to open embassies in each other’s capitals for the first time. Mr. Sarkozy said the Assad agreement “to open diplomatic representation in Lebanon is historic progress.”

But Mr. Assad was vague about recognizing Lebanon, a country that Syria has dominated for decades and regards as a Syrian province. Syria has so far refused to demarcate a border with Lebanon, and Mr. Assad said that before mutual recognition, both countries must “define the steps to take to arrive at this stage.”

On Sunday, just before the union summit began, Mr. Sarkozy was host to Mr. Abbas and Mr. Olmert for another of their regular meetings to try to negotiate the principles for a peace deal. The last meeting was in early June in Jerusalem, so the meeting here was no breakthrough.

Still, both sides sounded optimistic tones for Mr. Sarkozy. Mr. Olmert, under pressure at home to resign after further allegations of personal corruption, said that Israel and the Palestinians “have never been as close to the possibility of an accord as we are today.”

Mr. Abbas praised Mr. Sarkozy as “a great and enduring friend of Palestine and Israel, making you the right man for this role of furthering the peace process.”

Senior Israeli officials said that progress was being made, but that hard political decisions remained for Mr. Abbas and the Palestinians. “It’s getting close to crunch time,” one official said, asking for anonymity following normal diplomatic practice.

Despite Mr. Olmert’s problems, the Israelis insist that there is a national consensus supporting the peace effort, but that the Palestinians must give up some of their core goals, like the return to them of all of east Jerusalem, a complete return to 1967 boundaries and a right for all refugees from the 1948-49 conflict to return to original homes.

The Palestinians say that Israel must live up to its own promises, stopping settlement expansion and agree to return to roughly 1967 lines.

The Israeli officials said that peace was possible with Syria, but that Mr. Assad would have to decide to finish the negotiations in direct talks. Waiting for a new American president would be a mistake, the Israeli officials warned — because that would likely mean a new Israeli prime minister too, even if Mr. Olmert survives for the moment.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey met separately with Mr. Olmert and Mr. Assad and reportedly carried a similar message between them.

The summit itself was a talkathon, held around a huge oval table in the majestic, glass-roofed Grand Palais. Mr. Sarkozy greeted each representative as their limousines arrived. Inside, Mr. Olmert made the rounds, but as he approached Mr. Assad, the Syrian turned away to talk to his interpreter, according to a photographer who was present. The Israeli representatives sat next to those of Italy and Greece; Syria was seated between Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Later, just before Mr. Olmert was due to speak, Mr. Assad left the hall.

Addressing the summit, Mr. Mubarak said, “We are linked by a common destiny,” and he urged members to reduce the gap in wealth between north and south by working on “durable development.”

Mr. Sarkozy spoke of partnership and peace, saying that “the European and the Mediterranean dreams are inseparable.” He said that “everyone is going to have to make an effort, as the Europeans did, to put an end to the deadly spiral of war and violence.”

The group spoke around limited topics on Sunday, with speeches limited by the large numbers attending. A summit declaration proposed projects like Solar energy, reducing pollution of the sea and student exchanges. Heads of state of the union’s member nations are supposed to meet every two years, and their foreign ministers every year.

The Arab League, which wanted full membership, will instead be considered a “permanent observer.” The meeting was followed by a formal dinner at the Elysee, with seating at small tables carefully negotiated by French diplomats.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who insisted that the Sarkozy project include all European Union members and not just those bordering the Mediterranean, said pointedly that the summit “was a very, very good start for a new phase in the cooperation” between Europe and the south, a reference to the so-called Barcelona process set up after the Oslo peace accords. The European Union in fact calls this: “Barcelona Process: Union for the Mediterranean.”

“The summit is a nice event, but will the union find an independent life?” one senior diplomat from a southern country asked, noting that the Barcelona process, like Oslo, had run out of gas. “It would be a shame to have a second version of the Barcelona process,” the diplomat said. “Sarkozy’s original idea was bold, but there’s not much of it left.”

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