Marius Schattner
Agence France Presse (AFP)
July 10, 2008 - 3:06pm

JERUSALEM (AFP) Israel hopes the new Mediterranean Union will help improve relations with the Arab world, but Arabs warn against any attempt to bring normalisation in through the back door.

"Israel has always considered that it is in the interest of all the peoples of the Mediterranean to reinforce their cooperation, which is why we are happy to participate in the Mediterranean Union," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said of the entity that will be launched at a Paris summit on Sunday.

"This is the first time that the top leaders of the Mediterranean meet" with the participation of Israel, he said.

"As with every international meeting, we hope that it will provide the opportunity for direct encounters" between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Arab leaders, he added.

One Arab leader attending the summit will be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country recently resumed peace talks with Israel, after an eight-year break, through Turkish mediation.

On Tuesday, Syria called on European governments to show understanding of Arab refusal to normalise ties with Israel without a comprehensive peace deal.

"The Europeans need to understand Arab demands to recover their lands and not engage in a normalisation process for free with an enemy that is still occupying our territory," said the ruling party's Al-Baath daily.

"Arabs want to see the launch of a comprehensive development process so that progress and peace can reign on both shores of the Mediterranean," it added.

"Peace and security are not achievable if territories are not restored to their rightful owners and if the social and economic gap between the two shores of the Mediterranean is not closed.

"That's the Arab message that President Bashar al-Assad will be taking to Paris," it concluded.

The editorial echoed concerns raised at a meeting in Algiers early last month when Arab foreign ministers called for clarification surrounding Israel's membership of a Mediterranean Union.

"Among the items that must be clarified are the consequences of Israel's presence inside the Mediterranean Union," said Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci.

"The Mediterranean Union must not normalise (relations) between Israel and Arab countries, something which has not been achieved by the Barcelona process," launched in 1995 to bring the European Union and five countries from the Mediterranean's southern rim closer together, he said.

Normalising relations with Israel is the issue of a separate debate among Arab countries, which voted in 2002 that Israel must withdraw from territories captured during the 1967 Middle East war before normalisation can occur.

Medelci warned that Mediterranean Union countries that do not have relations with Israel "must not be forced to be part of joint projects" with Israel inside the Union.

Syria's Assad and Israel's Olmert are both attending the summit, but the Israeli press has said that, in order to avoid any embarrassing situations, they will be seated well apart at the summit table.

For his part, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said "we welcome the fact that the Syrians are talking to the Israelis."

The two sides, which remain at a state of war despite a 1974 armistice, have held three rounds of Turkish-mediated talks and have agreed to hold another.

Syria has made any peace deal conditional on Israel's withdrawal from all of the Golan heights, the strategic plateau the Jewish state seized in 1967 and annexed in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.

Israel is also engaged in peace talks with the Palestinians, who are also unwilling to see the Mediterranean Union as a vehicle for papering over differences between the two sides.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat has said the new entity will be "a step in the right direction, but no project for regional cooperation will be able to function fully while the Israeli occupation continues.

"In order for a genuine partnership to emerge, the countries involved (in the Mediterranean Union) should press Israel to put an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories."

Israel has also made overtures about achieving peace with another neighbour, Lebanon.

It is expected that recently elected Lebanese President Michel Sleiman will attend the Paris summit, but there has been no indication of planned meetings with the Israelis.


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