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Sarkozy revels in Club Med 'bringer of peace' role

A gargantuan summit of European and Middle Eastern leaders in Paris has produced a series of breakthroughs and diplomatic coups for the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Israel agreed to release prisoners to smooth the way for a new peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority. Syria promised to establish normal relations with Lebanon for the first time in 65 years. Perhaps most startling of all, a Syrian president and an Israeli prime minister sat in the same room, and at the same table, for the first time. However, the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, managed to vanish from the room before the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, gave his setpiece speech.

It remains to be seen whether the Sarkozy-inspired, 43-nation "Union for the Mediterranean", launched yesterday, will suffer the same fate as previous botched efforts to establish formal links between Europe, the Middle East and north Africa. The success of the inaugural summit suggests the new "Club Med" – dismissed by some as just another talking shop – might finally allow Europe to become a serious player in the game of Middle East peace.

Middle Eastern leaders joined their EU counterparts, including Gordon Brown, to discuss practical co-operation on issues such as energy, pollution, climate change and immigration. War and peace were not on the formal agenda but the unprecedented gathering provided an opportunity, and impetus, for deal-making between perennially hostile neighbours.

Mr Olmert, under increasing domestic pressure from allegations of corruption, held pre-summit talks in Paris yesterday morning with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. M. Sarkozy also attended.

Afterwards, Mr Olmert said that the two sides had "never been as close to the possibility of reaching an accord as we are today". Israeli officials said that Mr Olmert was ready to release an unspecified, but large, number of Palestinian prisoners to help to achieve a settlement with Mr Abbas, on the permanent boundaries of the West Bank (Jerusalem excepted).

The leaders of 40 nations were shielded behind a protective "ring of steel", with large parts of one of the world's most visited cities out of bounds to the public. More than 6,000 police officers were mobilised to defend the no-go zone in a swathe of central Paris on both banks of the Seine. Neither tourists nor non-resident Parisians were allowed into an area of more than one square kilometre.

On Saturday, M. Sarkozy brokered a meeting between the Syrian President, Mr Assad, and the Lebanese President, Michel Suleiman. Damascus, which has long been accused of treating Lebanon as a de facto colony, agreed to establish normal government-to-government and diplomatic relations with Beirut for the first time since Lebanese independence in 1943.

Yesterday afternoon, the Israeli Prime Minister and Syrian President took their seats in the vast summit chamber in the sprawling, glass-roofed Grand Palais exhibition hall, just off the Champs Elysées. They did not exchange a handshake or a word or establish eye-contact. All the same, this was, as President Sarkozy pointed out, "a historic event": the first time that Syrian and Israeli leaders had consented to be in the same room.

The "Union for the Mediterranean", linking the 27 European Union member states, and 16 nations on the southern and eastern rims of the Med, is not what President Sarkozy first intended. He wanted an organisation which united only those countries with a Mediterranean coast-line. Germany and Spain objected. President Sarkozy – currently president of the EU council – agreed to merge his idea with an existing, and largely moribund, EU-Mediterranean association launched in Barcelona in 1995.

The new Union for the Mediterranean will attempt to set up common approaches to, among other things, global warming, investment, solar energy, water shortages, illegal immigration, maritime pollution, road and sea transport and university exchange programmes.

President Sarkozy said, in his opening speech to the summit, that this was an attempt to emulate the nuts-and-bolts approach of the original European Common Market. Age-old national quarrels and hatreds would be doused in debate and co-operation on vital issues of everyday importance. "The European and the Mediterranean dreams are inseparable," he said. "We will build peace in the Mediterranean together, like yesterday we built peace in Europe ... We will succeed together; or we will fail together."

The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, the co-chairman of the summit with M. Sarkozy, stressed the importance of progress on practical, everyday issues as "building blocks" for peace.

The inaugural summit owed its success partly to President Sarkozy's energy and vision – and partly to luck. Officials pointed out that several favourable factors came together: the diplomatic vacuum created by the change of administration in the US; the Israeli Prime Minister's domestic political crisis, which made him hungry for progress with the Palestinians; and the Syrian President's strategic decision to reduce his country's diplomatic isolation.

All the same, the summit will go down as a diplomatic and political triumph for President Sarkozy: perhaps the most important single event in his 14 months in the Elysée Palace.

Leaders don't see eye-to-eye

The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert looked his way, but Syria's President Bashar al-Assad avoided any eye contact when the two leaders attended a summit that had stirred expectations of a first, friendly encounter.

The men were among more than 40 leaders gathered in Paris for the EU-Mediterranean summit and it was the first time they had ever been in the same room together.

Although Syria recently revived indirect negotiations with its long-time foe, President Assad clearly considered it was too soon to shake hands, chat or even nod to Mr Olmert.

As Mr Olmert entered the main hall of the Grand Palais, a Reuters photographer captured him casting glances toward the tall Syrian leader. But Mr Assad turned away, raising one hand to his face as if to block off any eye contact with the Israeli.

Mr Assad skirting the far wall, where interpreters sat in plexiglass booths, as Mr Olmert turned to talk to another delegate. The Syrian leader had left the room byt the time Mr Olmert gave his speech. A seating chart showed Mr Olmert had been assigned a place almost directly opposite Mr Assad for the round-table discussion.

Earlier yesterday, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Mouallem, attended talks at which his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, was also present. He did not speak to her and left the room when she got up to speak. Reuters