PARIS (Reuters) - Leaders from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East launched a 43-nation Union for the Mediterranean on Sunday pledging practical cooperation among erstwhile enemies on water, energy and education.
Urging Mediterranean states to emulate Europe’s model of reconciliation and cooperation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the birth of the new organization that was his brainchild on taking office last year was “a dream come true.”
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 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 civilization,” 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.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Assad was not in the meeting room before the Israeli prime minister delivered a speech on water cooperation because he had “other business.”
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.
Assad said later in a French television interview that it would take between six months and two years to make peace with Israel if both sides were serious and engaged in direct talks.
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 certain this initiative will bear fruit, that it will be a happy initiative. We have made some giant steps down this road towards cooperation between Europe and the Mediterranean area,” he told a final news conference with Sarkozy.
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.
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 signaled 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.”
Merkel, initially hostile to Sarkozy’s initiative because the original plan was to exclude northern EU states, 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.
The final summit communique, issued after hours of wrangling over the wording on the Arab-Israeli conflict, voiced support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but omitted any direct mention of a two-state solution.
A Palestinian official said President Mahmoud Abbas was still seeking to have that paragraph removed after the French hosts distributed the text, saying Abbas had approved it.
The leaders also welcomed the announcement of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria under the auspices of Turkey.
France and Egypt co-chaired the summit but detailed arrangements on the future of the co-presidency and secretariat were postponed to November due to persistent disagreements.
In a 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 civilizations as key areas for cooperation.
The new organization 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.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told his country’s official APS news agency that the union may struggle to finance its projects because it was not clear where the funds will come from. But Sarkozy and Mubarak said money was not a problem.