The "handshake roulette" between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad, which has been keeping the Union for the Mediterranean and the Middle East preoccupied for weeks, will stop today. But even if a Syrian handshake does take place with an Israeli lame duck, or cooked goose, it will produce no thrill. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been working on the real thrill for almost two months: bringing Assad back into the international fold and replacing the U.S. president as the intermediary in the peace process.
Now that a Lebanese government has been formed, Assad and Sarkozy will be free to discuss the peace process with Israel, the international trial of the suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and advancing the Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
It's a two-way deal: Assad will push the peace process with Israel and Sarkozy promises to make a state visit to Damascus in September or October. Assad will see to the functioning of the Lebanese government and open an embassy in Lebanon, and Sarkozy will send a delegation of high-level business people and legislators to Syria in August. A deal to sell Airbus planes to Syria is also in the offing. American sanctions on Syria are clearly breaking down.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a last-minute decision to come to the conference, despite concerns that the Union for the Mediterranean will leave his country at sea, far from the warm shores of the EU. Turkey, also an intermediary in the Syrian-Israeli process, will push in two directions at the conference: toward direct talks, and bringing in Washington as a partner. A Turkish source told Haaretz Saturday that he did not discount the presence of an American representative at the coming round of talks.
"The Americans must accept that we are part of the solution not only in Lebanon but also in Iraq and Palestine," Assad told Le Monde diplomatique. The Americans apparently realize that if they don't hurry, Sarkozy will take the whole pot.
According to Arab press reports, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the conference's co-chairman, has invited Assad to dinner. Yes, this inter-Arab conflict must also be solved if Egypt wants to advance negotiations between Israel and Hamas. So must the bad blood between Saudi Arabia and Syria, after the Hariri assassination in 2005 and Assad's calling the Saudis "half men" for not sufficiently supporting Hezbollah in the Lebanon war. And Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah are not on speaking terms. If feathers can be smoothed over dinner, Assad can receive Arab approval and Sarkozy can chalk up another success in the face of American feebleness.
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