Israel and Syria take step towards dialogue

ELIZABETH NASH

Barcelona

Israel and Syria took a step towards rapprochement at the Euro-Mediterranean conference that opened yesterday in Barcelona, with Syria indicating its willingness to accept Israel's offer of peace if it withdrew from the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Ehud Barak, in his opening speech to foreign ministers from the European Union and 12 Mediterranean nations, made a direct appeal to his Syrian counterpart, Farouk al-Shara, who was seated at the same table. "We were rivals in battle", General Barak said. "We've spilt blood. We've made peace now."

Mr al-Shara said: "A just and global peace cannot be achieved without the total withdrawal from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon." This was the first time the two countries had exchanged such relatively positive comments in a public forum, and the exchange is being interpreted as the first step towards a dialogue.

The 27 ministers, meeting for the first time yesterday, are to approve today a declaration and an action plan cementing a regional partnership. It promises a Euro-Mediterranean free-trade area by 2010 and co-operation on energy, water, immigration, and against terrorism and drug trafficking. The draft side-steps some points of conflict, such as Islamic fundamentalism. "Islam isn't just fundamentalism any more than Christianity was the Inquisition," said the deputy president of the European Commission, Manuel Marin.

North African immigration into southern Europe was a sticking point resolved at the last minute. About 5 million Muslims, mostly from the Maghreb, live in southern Europe, and illegal immigration from North Africa, prompted by economic hardship, is increasing. Under Moroccan insistence the declaration softens reference to countries' "obligation" to return illegal immigrants to their countries of origin in favour of their "responsibility" to do so.

"Fighting terrorism will have to be a priority ... and consideration will be given to stepping up exchanges of information and improving extradition procedures," says the action plan. But Lebanon, Syria and Palestine want the definition of terrorism to exclude the fight against occupying forces, a point resisted by Israel. Another clause unpalatable to Israel, calling for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, was expected to be softened.

Britain, seizing upon trade and investment opportunities, wants a study made on overcoming obstacles to investment in the region and proposes a conference next year in London to mobilise capital flows.

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