The Union for the Mediterranean is born
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French president Nicolas Sarkozy along with 40 leaders launched the Union for the Mediterranean. One of its aims will be to bring fresh energy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations process.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and more than 40 leaders on Sunday launched a new Union for the Mediterranean, hoping to inject momentum in Middle East peace efforts.
The new forum brings together the 27 countries of the European Union with states from north Africa, the Balkans and Arab nations with Israel to foster cooperation in one of the world's most volatile regions.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad scored a major comeback to the international stage after years of isolation, taking his seat alongside Arab leaders at the same table as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Sarkozy said Arab states had made a "gesture of peace" by attending the inaugural summit of the Union for the Mediterranean and pledged Europe would "build peace in the Mediterranean, just as yesterday we built peace in Europe."
The French president, who championed the idea of new grouping during his election campaign last year, said leaders must "learn to love each other in the Mediterranean, instead of continuing to hate and wage war."
Capping the summit held at the grandiose glass-domed Grand Palais near the Seine River, leaders issued a founding declaration of the 43-member union, home to 756 million people from the shores of Greenland to the deserts of Jordan.
Leaders agreed on a batch of modest projects such as cleaning up pollution in the Mediterranean Sea, improving shipping routes and developing solar energy.
But hopes for a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process loomed large over the gathering, with a flurry of meetings on the sidelines underscoring the urgency for progress.
"We have never been as close to an accord as we are today," Olmert told reporters after talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Israel and Syria held another round of indirect talks through Turkey, the latest in a string of exchanges launched in May, but for the first time it was at a high level.
With a corruption scandal at home threatening to bring him down, Olmert held talks in Paris with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then met Assad, according to an Israeli diplomatic source.
After meeting with Assad, Erdogan said he had high hopes of face-to-face peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.
The two countries have technically remained at war since the 1948 creation of the Jewish state.
"Our hopes are very high. Our determination is solid and we will continue," Erdogan told reporters.
Assad however has poured cold water on a quick resumption of direct talks, saying this would probably not happen before next year, after the election of a new US president.
On the sidelines of the summit, France stepped up its Middle East diplomacy, with Sarkozy hosting talks with all the major players including a landmark meeting between Assad and Lebanon's new president Michel Sleiman on Saturday.
Syria and Lebanon announced they would establish diplomatic relations, opening embassies in each country's capitals for the first time since independence.
Through his energetic lobbying, Sarkozy persuaded almost all of the leaders to attend, although the Elysee bowed to objections and dropped plans for an official group photograph.
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi boycotted the meeting, while Jordan's King Abdullah II and King Mohammed VI of Morocco sent senior representatives.
The union aims to build on the EU's 13-year-old Barcelona process, which was plagued by disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
France and Egypt are to set up a joint presidency of the new union and summits will be held every two years.
A secretariat will also be created to supervise the projects, but its composition and location are to be decided in November, Sarkozy said.