France's high hopes for Med Union launch

French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a 43-nation Union for the Mediterranean on Sunday with a plea for Middle Eastern countries to emulate Europe's model of reconciliation and integration, Reuters reported.

The ceremonial inaugural summit at the lofty iron-and-glass Grand Palais in Paris sealed a new detente between Syria and Europe, with the Syrian and Israeli leaders also sitting at the same table for the first time.

"Everyone will have to make an effort, as the Europeans did, to put an end to the deadly spiral of war and violence, that, century after century, repeatedly brought barbarity to the heart of civilisation," Sarkozy said in the keynote speech.

But there was no handshake and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared to go out of his way to avoid Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, hiding his face behind his arm as he walked past where the Israeli leader was standing.

An Olmert aide said Assad left the meeting room before the Israeli prime minister delivered a speech on water cooperation. An Israeli spokesman said Olmert used a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to convey a message that Israel was serious about seeking peace with Syria. But a Syrian official denied that Assad received any message via Erdogan.

A Turkish official said both leaders had reconfirmed to Erdogan their will to continue the negotiations, but he would not go into specifics on any messages.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, co-president of the summit, told the leaders they must work together to meet the challenges of food, education and health for their growing populations.

"I am sure that today is a start. I am sure that we have a long way to go and we will go a long way," he said.

On a day rich in political gestures, Sarkozy hosted cordial talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, capped with an effusive triple handshake and a joint news conference.

"The goal of this summit for the Mediterranean, of this Union for the Mediterranean, is that we learn to love each other instead of continuing to hate each other and wage war," Sarkozy said, flanked by Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Olmert, keen to talk up peace prospects as he clings to office in the face of mounting corruption allegations, told reporters: "It seems to me that we have never been as close to the possibility of reaching an accord as we are today."

For Assad, Sunday's summit signalled a spectacular emergence from isolation in the West three years after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which many believe was orchestrated from Damascus.

The red-carpet treatment was partly a reward for Syria's backing of a Qatar-brokered peace deal that pulled Lebanon back from the brink of civil war in May, and for starting indirect peace talks with Israel via Turkish mediation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she told Assad at a private meeting: "We've heard enough words exchanged, now we want to see deeds."

She said France and Germany planned to host a conference on developing solar energy as a key resource in the Mediterranean region. Both wanted to promote economic development to help reduce migratory pressure from North Africa to Europe, she said.

Officials resolved the last outstanding disputes on the communique just as the summit opened, subject to a final sign-off by Olmert and Abbas. The text called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in line with the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis peace process.

In another compromise, the Arab League will not receive formal observer status but will be invited to meetings of the EU-Mediterranean partnership known as the Barcelona process.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner identified climate change, the environment, access to water and energy, migration and dialogue between civilisations as key areas for cooperation.

The new organisation aims to pursue practical projects with EU and private sector funding, such as cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea, using North Africa's plentiful sunshine to generate solar power, and building road and sea highways.

But the Paris summit, a diplomatic success for Sarkozy, who holds the EU's rotating presidency, may be richer in symbolism than substance, at least to start with.

France and Egypt will be the first countries to co-chair the new body, but details such as the location and powers of its secretariat remain to be resolved, and the Middle East conflicts that bedevilled past EU-Mediterranean cooperation loom large.

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