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Europe

France Launches Med Union with High Hopes

French president Nicolas Sarkozy had more to smile about this weekend after the Israeli Prime Minister announced Israel and the Palestinians had "never been this close" to a peace accord after talks in Paris.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, pulls together the hands of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Sarkozy is clearly enjoying his role as peacemaker

"We have never been as close to the possibility of reaching an accord as we are today," Ehud Olmert said following the meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in the presence of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Israeli prime minister also said on Sunday that he hoped direct contacts with Syria could start soon.

"We are approaching the moment when we will have to make decisive choices, grave, important choices that will take us to a stage we have never reached before," he added.

Both Abbas and Olmert called on Sarkozy, as president of France, chair of the European Union presidency and host of the new Mediterranean union, to play an important role in steering peace negotiations.

The two sides have met regularly since the relaunch of the process last November, but talks have stalled over the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Olmert and Abbas are among 43 foreign leaders gathered in the French capital for the launch of a new Union for the Mediterranean. Some have never sat round the same table before.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa are also attending.

At a pre-summit meeting of foreign ministers, France urged the members to tackle 21st challenges from immigration to energy security. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said it was time the region put years of strife behind it and forge new ties with European Union states.

Diplomatic coup for Sarkozy

Sarkozy shaking Assad's hand with Lebanese President Suleimann by Assad's side.

Sarkozy shakes on the deal with Syrian President Assad.

On Saturday, July 10, the French president booked his first success when Syria and Lebanon agreed to normalize their often fraught relations. The two countries agreed to set up diplomatic representations in each other's countries.

"We can say that Lebanon has moved from being a zone of turbulence, a war zone, to a more pacified zone where the Lebanese, and only the Lebanese, have the right to determine their own future," Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after the meeting with the new Lebanese president Michel Suleimann. Syria has long been accused by the international community of interfering in Lebanese politics.

Assad's presence in Paris marks his comeback from diplomatic isolation, following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

But despite this diplomatic coup, observers have warned that the summit on Sunday, July 13, could be richer in symbolism than substance. A series of practical organizational details remain to be resolved, such as the location and the powers of the Union's secretariat.

And not all Mediterranean countries are attending. Libya's Muammar Gadhafi -- a vocal critic of the project -- is the only leader that has boycotted the meeting.

The Union -- the brainchild of the French president -- chiefly aims to work on a series of practical projects such as tackling pollution problems in the Mediterranean sea, improving infrastructure and launching a solar energy scheme. But Sarkozy also regards it as a tool for advancing diplomatic relations.

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