* Yep. Peace is just around the corner. Looks like Sakozy is on a permanent honeymoon peace train. EU “external relations commissioner’ Benita Ferrero-Waldner also smells like ‘peace’… Same old, same old…
PARIS: Israel and the Palestinians “have never been this close” to a peace deal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last night following talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris and before a diplomatic breakthrough with arch-foe Syria.
Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas were among 43 leaders in Paris for the launch of a new Union for the Mediterranean, which aims to boost co-operation in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
“We have never been as close to an accord as we are today,” Mr Olmert told a press conference following talks hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy at the French presidential palace.
‘All we need is LOVE…’
“We are approaching the moment when we will have to make decisive choices,” he said.
The declaration of optimism came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to make history and seal detente with Europe by attending the launch of the French-inspired union alongside Mr Olmert overnight.
The diplomatic breakthrough — the first time Israeli and Syrian leaders would have been in the same room — enables Mr Assad to emerge from Western isolation three years after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a murder that many believe was orchestrated from Damascus.
On Saturday, Mr Assad held talks with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who agreed to normalise relations between Damascus and Beirut. This was an early success for Mr Sarkozy, who hosted the talks.
Mr Olmert said last night that while he hoped indirect peace talks launched with Syria, via Turkey, would “soon become direct”, the peace process with the Palestinians remained Israel’s utmost priority.
Mr Abbas and Mr Olmert called on Mr Sarkozy, as President of France, chair of the European Union presidency and host of the new Mediterranean Union, to take a front-seat role in steering peace negotiations.
Though the two sides have met regularly since the relaunch of the process last November, after a seven-year hiatus, talks have stalled over the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
Mr Abbas said that Mr Sarkozy’s “friendship” with both Israelis and Palestinians “enables you to play an important role to help the peace process succeed in a few months”.
“We have started an in-depth negotiation with Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni,” Mr Abbas said.
“We will pursue this effort. We are quite serious.”
Mr Sarkozy has been stepping up France’s Middle East diplomacy for the launch of the Mediterranean Union, bringing friends and foes together around the same table, and pushing to advance peace in the region.
The French leader said union between Europe and its Mediterranean neighbours would help countries in the region “learn to love each other”.
“It doesn’t mean that all of the problems are resolved of course,” Sarkozy said. “But the goal of the summit … is that we learn how to love each other in the Mediterranean, instead of continuing to hate and wage war.”
Heads of state and government from the 27 European Union nations and an arc of countries running from Morocco to the Balkans — representing 756 million people — will endorse the new forum at the Grand Palais on the Champs Elysee.
The summit aims to revitalise co-operation between the EU and Mediterranean countries, although it may be richer in symbolism than substance.
The new organisation aims to pursue practical projects with EU and private sector funding such as cleaning up the Mediterranean, using North Africa’s sunshine to generate solar power, and building road and sea highways. “What we need is a new political impulse, a new revitalisation, a new dynamism,” EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.
France and Egypt will co-chair the new body for two years, but the location and powers of its secretariat remain to be resolved, and the Middle East conflicts that have bedevilled past EU-Mediterranean co-operation are still looming large.
While Mr Sarkozy said after the Syrian-Lebanese meeting on Saturday that Mr Assad and Mr Suleiman had come to an historic decision to open embassies in each other’s countries for the first time, the Syrian leader was more cautious, saying the sides must “define the steps to take to arrive at this stage”.
Syria and Lebanon have not had fully fledged embassies in each other’s countries since Lebanon became independent in 1943 and Syria in 1945.
Mr Assad, long accused by France of meddling in Lebanese politics, said: “We can say that Lebanon has moved from being a zone of turbulence, a war zone, to a more pacified zone where the Lebanese, and only the Lebanese, have the right to determine their own future.”