CBNNews.com - PARIS - In a public snub before leaders of 43 nations, Syrian President Bashar Assad walked out of the Grand Palais exhibition hall in Paris when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came forward to address a meeting of Mediterranean leaders.
This despite Olmert's earlier remarks to reporters that he hoped third-party peace talks with Syria, mediated by Turkey, would lead to direct negotiations.
Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni joined leaders from European, African and Middle Eastern countries Sunday to participate in a new initiative launched by French President Nicolas Sarkozy aimed at reviving cooperation among these countries.
At the press conference before the summit, flanked by Sarkozy and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert told reporters that a peace deal with the Palestinians is closer than ever, and the Syrian track would not interfere with that.
"It seems to me that we have never been as close to the possibility of reaching an accord [with the Palestinians] as we are today," Olmert said.
"Israel is continuing with efforts to achieve peace with Syria, and I hope that soon the talks will become direct so that we can progress in them more," he said, adding that those talks "will not come at the expense of negotiations with the Palestinians."
In a private meeting with Abbas before the summit, Olmert offered to release more Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to bolster the PA president.
Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, called the announcement a goodwill "gesture" to which Olmert "agreed in principle."
Meanwhile, in an interview on French television, Assad said he avoided a public handshake with Olmert because the two countries aren't speaking directly.
"We are engaged in indirect talks. We are not seeking symbols," Assad said, adding that he had "much more hope" of achieving a peace deal with Israel after President Bush leaves office in January.
The prime minister's critics in Israel believe that the peace talk is a smoke screen to deflect from the numerous investigations against him, which are becoming more serious.
Olmert's offer to release additional Palestinian prisoners comes two days after Israel Police National Fraud Unit detectives questioned him for a third time at his Jerusalem residence Friday, this time including allegations of double and triple-billing travel agencies to fund travel for his wife and children.
A team of Israeli investigators, who left for the States shortly after the deposition of American businessman Morris Talansky in May, brought back new evidence that may lead to even more serious fraud and bribery charges.
"It could be said that Olmert was unable to extricate himself from the cloud of suspicion," one Israeli official said. The Israeli Police and the Justice Ministry issued a joint statement following Friday's investigation.
"The prime minister was asked to give his account about suspicions of serious fraud and other offences," the statement read.
"According to the suspicions, during his tenure as Jerusalem mayor and trade and industry minister, Olmert would seek duplicate funding for his trips abroad from public bodies, including from the State, with each of them requested to fund the same trip," read the statement.
The prime minister is also being investigated for receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it delivered in cash-stuffed envelopes, from Talansky.
Four other criminal investigations have been opened against Olmert since he took office in 2006.
In mid-September, Olmert's Kadima party will hold its first primaries to replace him as party leader.
With the majority of Israelis supporting new elections, it's questionable whether Olmert's broad-sweeping statements in Paris or at home will come to fruition.
Meanwhile, Talansky returned to Israel last week and is scheduled to be cross-examined by Olmert's legal team beginning Thursday.
Sources: The Associated Press, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, YNet news