PARIS: President Nicolas Sarkozy has pulled off something of a diplomatic coup in assembling about 40 leaders, some nursing age-old Middle Eastern enmities, for the grandiose launch of his pet project: The Union for the Mediterranean.
But don t expect a group photo.
Although Syrian and Israeli leaders will sit at the same table for the first time at the Sunday gathering – designed to bring together countries that border the sea – expectations are low that a new spirit of friendship will suddenly blossom over canapés and toasts.
Sarkozy s ambitious initiative has been so watered down over the past year that critics now deride it as Club Med – suggesting it will be big on blather and low on substance.
The burning question surrounding the meeting is whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad will talk or shake hands.
Optimists see the launch as an unprecedented occasion to propel recently resumed peace talks between their countries, conducted indirectly through Turkey, with a one-on-one meeting or an announcement of unmediated negotiations.
Sarkozy has said any meeting between the two leaders would mark formidable progress in Israel-Syria relations. Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry director and lobbyist for Israeli-Syrian peace talks, said even a handshake would be a sensation.
But Syrian officials have not spoken encouragingly of a handshake or a meeting. Israeli officials aren t expecting much, because of Syria s traditional resistance to holding talks at the very highest level before a sound basis for success emerges.
Damascus wants Israel to return the Golan Heights, seized in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel wants Syria to sever its ties with Iran and to stop backing Lebanese and Palestinian fighters.
Other tensions underpin the summit.
The Algerian president and Morocco s king are coming, despite the long rivalry between their nations. And Assad has said he will meet with Lebanon s new President Michel Suleiman, a notable encounter given that Syria has long interfered in that country s fate.
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who issued a passionate denunciation of the initiative, refused to come. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which sees the project as a way to keep it linked to but outside of the EU, has said he will try to attend.
Friction with France s EU partners has also undermined the union.
Sarkozy s plan to transform the volatile Mediterranean basin into a region of peace and prosperity was intended as pillar of his presidency and a symbol of France s leadership of the European Union, which it holds until the end of the year. But it overlaps with expensive European projects in progress and was largely gutted, and effectively usurped, by the Brussels-based EU before even taking seed.
Ideally, you should measure an initiative by its results … but the measure of success has been shifted to who will be there on Sunday, said Jose Ignacio Toreblanca of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
A grandiose venue, the glass-domed Grand Palais, has been chosen for the gathering with rooms set aside for private talks. The event will be capped the following day with dozens of leaders attending France s national Bastille Day military parade as special guests.
But the summit falls short of the vision that Sarkozy laid out as a presidential candidate – ironically because it will be so well attended.
The union is to be made up of 44 nations – 27 from the EU and 17 from the southern and eastern rim, watering down Sarkozy s original vision of only the five European nations on the Mediterranean joining their southern neighbors.
The way Sarkozy pushed the project infuriated his European partners, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They feared it would overlap with other EU projects, fragment the bloc and drain EU funds to enrich the prestige and influence of France.
In a compromise, Sarkozy s plan was made top-heavy with Europeans.
Tough issues like immigration or terrorism are giving way to feel-good projects. Among those to be put forward Sunday are a student exchange modeled on an EU program; developing solar energy; cleaning up the Mediterranean and developing shipping highways of the sea.
At the end of the day, the particular projects that have been identified are very wise because they are uncontroversial, said Toreblanca. There is a need for a happy ending and the credits at the end of the movie saying Thank you, Sarkozy. -Associated Press Writer Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this story.