PARIS, July 13 (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 organisation 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 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.
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 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."
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 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.
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.