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Israel PM: Peace closer than ever

Ehud Olmert (left), Nicolas Sarkozy and Mahmoud Abbas in Paris
Nicolas Sarkozy (centre) said he wanted to promote love not war

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have expressed their optimism over the chances for peace at a summit of EU and Mediterranean rim nations in Paris.

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert said his country had never been so close to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians as now.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said both were serious and wanted peace.

Leaders from 43 nations have launched the Union for the Mediterranean, which has ending conflict in the Middle East as one of its main priorities.

It will also tackle issues like immigration and pollution.

The summit's host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said the aim was to see that the region was a place where people could love each other instead of making war.

Mr Sarkozy urged Middle Eastern countries involved in long-running conflicts to end the deadly spiral of war and violence, as European nations had done by making peace which each other during the 20th Century.

He said the presidency of the European Union - which France currently holds - was committed to progress on Middle East peace.

Syria talks

Speaking after the summit, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said it could take between six months and two years to reach a peace agreement with Israel - even if both sides agreed to hold face to face talks.

Turkey is currently acting as a mediator between the two countries.

We have never been as close to the possibility of coming to an agreement as we are today
Ehud Olmert

In a French TV interview, President Assad also said he did not believe any accord could be reached this year, while President Bush remains in office in the US.

Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he hoped the indirect talks would soon become direct ones.

Ahead of the summit, Mr Sarkozy addressed the media alongside The Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

Mr Sarkozy said the role of Europe and France was to help achieve peace through economic development, political initiatives and providing guarantees for all stakeholders. He said the main problem was one of confidence.

Mr Olmert said there would be "obstacles, problems, disagreements but we have never been as close to the possibility of coming to an agreement as we are today".

For his part, Mr Abbas sounded a positive note about future peace talks.

"We have no alternative but to achieve this peace," he said.

"For the sake of our peoples, the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, the peoples of the Middle East and for the people of the world. Because we know that peace in the Middle East is the basis of peace in the world."

Mr Sarkozy says his presidency of the EU is committed to progress on Middle East peace

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev was quoted by AP news agency as saying that the prime minister had "agreed in principle" to release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper said this would be unrelated to the prisoner exchange deals the government is conducting with Hezbollah and Hamas.

There are thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Mr Olmert is under pressure at home, where he is facing serious corruption allegations. There have been calls for the prime minister, who denies any wrongdoing, to resign.

Optimistic

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell, in Paris, said the meeting had been very optimistic.

Progress has already been made in other areas. Mr Sarkozy announced on Saturday that Syria and Lebanon had agreed to set up embassies in each other's capitals for the first time.

Relations between the two have been strained since Lebanon's former PM Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005 - an attack which Lebanon claims Syria was involved in.

Mark Mardell, BBC Europe Editor
Mr Sarkozy is one of those politicians who is full of surprises because he is always campaigning

The French president also asked Syria's leader Bashar al-Assad to use his ties with Iran to help resolve the international stand-off over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Mr Sarkozy has long spearheaded the idea of a Union for the Mediterranean.

Comprising 27 EU members with states from north Africa, the Balkans, Israel and the Arab world, the new body membership will include 756m people from Western Europe to the Jordanian desert.

He recently claimed the grouping could transform the Mediterranean region into an area of peace and prosperity.

Critics have dismissed the new union as lacking substance, and diplomats say there are continuing disagreements over key issues such as how to address the Middle East peace process and a possible role for the Arab League.

The only European or Mediterranean rim leader boycotting the Paris meeting is Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who has described the union as a new form of colonialism.




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