France's Hollande in Israel for Iran-focused visit

17th November 2013, Comments 0 comments

French President Francois Hollande landed in Israel on Sunday for a visit set to be dominated by the issue of world talks with Iran on its disputed nuclear programme.

The visit, Hollande's first since he became president in 2012, will also see him travelling to the Palestinian territories to discuss Middle East peace talks which have been limping along for three months with little signs of progress.

Hollande, who is flatlining in opinion polls at home, will also use his three-day visit to try to boost trade with the Jewish state, which stood at 2.3 billion euros ($3 billion) in 2011.

Descending from the plane at Ben Gurion airport, he was welcomed on the red carpet by his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with whom he will hold talks later in the day.

Both Israeli leaders have urged Paris, which took a tougher line than its Western partners in the latest talks with Iran which ended last weekend, to maintain its firm stance when they meet again in Geneva on Wednesday.

"We are convinced that if Iran manufactures its bomb, all the countries of the Middle East will want to follow suit," Peres told French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche.

Israel and Western powers suspect Iran's uranium enrichment programme is part of a covert drive to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, an allegation Tehran vehemently denies.

In a bid to keep up pressure as the talks resume, Netanyahu will fly to Russia on Wednesday to raise the issue with President Vladimir Putin.

And he will also discuss the matter with US Secretary of State John Kerry when he returns to Jerusalem on Friday, Netanyahu told a weekly meeting of his cabinet.

"We shall talk about this at the top of the many issues on the agenda. We shall do the same with President Putin on my visit to Moscow on Wednesday and will do the same with the American Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrives here on Friday," he said, quoted by his office.

"I hope we'll be able to convince our friends this week and in the following days to get a much better deal. It can be achieved," said Netanyahu.

"Iran is under economic pressure stress, and continuing to apply pressure and even increasing it can yield a much better diplomatic result."

Hollande's office said although France's "tactical approach" on Iran was different from Israel's more bellicose stance, both seek to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

'Iran jeopardises interests'

Ovadia Sofer, a former Israeli ambassador to Paris, says France and Israel share similar views on the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.

"France identifies with Israel on the issue of Iran," he told public radio.

"France had the mandate for Syria and Lebanon (after World War I), and to this day French policy is based on a basic and deep-rooted interest in those countries, and Iran jeopardises those interests."

Sofer said France had close links with Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab counties, who are growing increasingly nervous at the prospect of a nuclear Shiite Iran on their doorstep.

On Monday, the focus is likely to be switched to the struggling Middle East peace process as Hollande goes to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

French sources said he would encourage both sides to make the necessary compromises to overcome obstacles blocking progress in the US-brokered peace talks which resumed in late July after a nearly three-year hiatus.

Hollande will argue for a two-state solution but is also expected to criticise Israeli settlement construction in areas the Palestinians want as part of their future state.

He will also visit the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004 in a French hospital and who Swiss scientists recently said may have been poisoned with polonium.

Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers condemned Hollande's visit, with senior official Salah al-Bardawil saying it "supports Israel and is likely to ignore Palestinian rights".

After returning from Ramallah, the French leader will then make a speech at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

On Tuesday morning, he will visit the graves of four victims who were shot dead by Al-Qaeda-linked gunman Mohamed Merah in and around the southern French city of Toulouse in March 2012, killing seven people in total.

© 2013 AFP

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