President Nicolas Sarkozy (pictured in this file photo with George Bush) urged nations around the Mediterranean to “learn to love one another”
By ANGELA CHARLTON
PARIS (AP) — More than 40 nations home to 800 million people were set Sunday to join in a Union for the Mediterranean, a vast though vague body its boosters hope can nudge this disparate and conflicted swath of the world toward peace and stability.
Israeli, Syrian and Palestinian leaders were among those attending an unprecedented gathering on the River Seine in Paris. Coping with age-old enmities involving their peoples and others along the Mediterranean shores will be a central challenge to the new union.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged nations around the Mediterranean to “learn to love one another rather than to continue to hate each other and wage war.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: “We are closer than ever to a possible (peace) agreement today” with the Palestinians — and said he hoped for direct contacts “soon” with enemy Syria.
France’s foreign minister urged the countries to unite to deal with global warming, growing migration and shrinking water and energy resources.
“To do nothing would be a risk. We are fragile. Our world is fragile. Latent tensions and growing disparities are too dangerous for this unstable epoch. We have everything to gain by reinforcing our ties,” Bernard Kouchner said to fellow foreign ministers from across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The ministers were meeting in the grandiose Grand Palais abutting the Seine River. Later Sunday, presidents or prime ministers of 43 countries meet at a summit hosted by Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Union for the Mediterranean is Sarkozy’s brainchild, originally devised as a pillar of his presidency and of France’s leadership of the European Union. France holds the rotating EU post until the end of this year.
But Sarkozy’s ambitious plan overlapped with European Union projects already in progress, and it was melded into EU efforts and expanded to include 27 members of the European Union, not just those on the Mediterranean coast.
Sunday’s meeting was seen as more significant for the bodies gathered — the Israeli and Syrian leaders, for example, have never before sat at the same table — than for any immediate progress it is expected to achieve.
A draft declaration obtained by The Associated Press shows that summit participants will announce “objectives of achieving peace, stability and security” in the region. But the few firm measures are things such as a region-wide solar energy project, a cross-Mediterranean student exchange program and a plan to clean up the polluted sea.
On Saturday, Sarkozy played super-envoy, securing a preliminary agreement between the Syrian and Lebanese presidents that they would open embassies in each others’ countries for the first time.
Tensions between Lebanon and Syria, which dominated its smaller neighbor for decades, are one of the thorns in Mediterranean unity.
Sarkozy made the unusual step of reaching out to Syria, a nation often accused of sponsoring terrorism and undermining regional unity, in an effort to bring it back into the international fold ahead of Sunday’s summit.
“How can we make peace if we don’t speak with” everyone, Sarkozy asked alongside the Israeli and Palestinian leaders Sunday morning.
Sarkozy asked Syrian President Bashar Assad for help in easing the international standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. Assad asked France to contribute efforts toward a peace deal between Syria and Israel.
Assad appeared to throw cold water on speculation of a possible one-on-one meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at this weekend’s summit. Assad said indirect Israeli-Syrian talks mediated by Turkey could turn into full-fledged direct negotiations — but suggested little progress was likely before the United States elects a new president.
On Sunday morning, Sarkozy met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had shown reticence about coming to the summit. The leadership of the mostly Muslim country fears that the Mediterranean grouping is designed to keep Turkey out of the full EU membership that it seeks.
The Mediterranean gathering will be capped Monday with more than dozen leaders attending France’s national Bastille Day military parade as special guests.
The new union is to include at least 43 nations, all of which are sending a president or prime minister to the summit. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi objected to the whole idea and refused to come.