PARIS – Syria's president sat out the Israeli prime minister's speech to a Paris summit Sunday in an apparent rebuff just hours after Ehud Olmert urged Damascus to open direct peace talks, Israeli officials said.
Syrian leader Bashar Assad also did not shake hands with Olmert at a meeting of more than 40 European, African and Middle Eastern states in the French capital to launch a new Mediterranean union aimed at closer cooperation in the region.
"We are not seeking symbols," Assad said on French television, adding he avoided a handshake with Olmert because the two nations are still only in indirect peace talks.
But Assad said that once direct talks were launched, it could take as little as six months to reach a final deal. And he agreed to sit down with Olmert at the same table in a historic first for the enemy states: Never before had the leaders of the two countries been so close.
There had been some buzz before the one-day summit about whether the two men might make history by shaking hands or meeting one-on-one. Israeli officials were openly skeptical: Even though the two countries recently resumed peace talks, mediated by Turkey, after an eight-year breakdown, Syria had long resisted meetings at the highest level.
But that did not come to pass. And two Israeli officials said Assad was absent from the enormous room in the ornate Grand Palais exhibition hall when Olmert got up to address leaders at the summit. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss matters with diplomatic implications.
There was no official Israeli reaction to the apparent snub.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who organized the summit, said no one left the meeting "for bad reasons," adding that many participants came and went during the four-hour session for various reasons.
"Mr. Assad was very present throughout the afternoon," Sarkozy said. "I don't know who said (he wasn't), but he must have had a hidden agenda."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who co-hosted the meeting, did not rule out the possibility that Assad might have been out of the room when Olmert spoke.
"If Mr. Assad ... had other things to do outside the room, I don't see the problem," Mubarak said.
Hours before the afternoon session began, Olmert used the Paris forum to appeal to Syria to forego the Turkish mediation.
"We have begun a process with Syria," he said. "It is indirect, but I hope they will soon become direct contacts that will allow progress on this track."
Assad later acknowledged Israel and Syria were moving toward reconciliation.
"We have no other choice but peace," he told France-2 TV. But he said he had "much more hope" that peace would be achievable after President Bush leaves the White House in January.
He suggested that after agreement in direct talks, a complete peace accord could take six months to two years to implement if both sides are "serious."
Olmert himself said before the summit that resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was at the conference's core. But longstanding enmities and grudges were still apparent.
Although Mubarak told the gathering that "all countries aim to one day normalize their relations with Israel," some Arab leaders refused to be photographed with Olmert so there was no joint photograph at meeting's end.
Most Arab states have refused to have any dealings with Israel before it resolves its decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, though Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties. Israel and the moderate Palestinian government that rules the West Bank renewed direct talks in November, though they have since backed away from their declared objective of reaching a final accord by year's end.
Olmert waxed optimistic about prospects for reaching an accord, and he met multiple times Sunday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We have never been as close to a possible (peace) agreement as we are today," Olmert told reporters.
Although talks have been troubled since they were relaunched under U.S. auspices in November, the atmosphere was friendly when he and Abbas posed on the steps of the French presidential palace, each with an arm resting on the other's back.
Olmert told Abbas Israel was willing in principle to release some of the more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds — a gesture meant to show ordinary Palestinians that Abbas' path of moderation pays.
But as is the case with Syria, prospects for reaching long-elusive peace agreements could be jeopardized by burgeoning corruption allegations that could topple Olmert.