French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday said he wanted “concrete acts” from Iran to prove it was not pursuing a nuclear arms drive after his first face-to-face meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At a press conference with Netanyahu, whose aim during a two-day visit to France is to seek more pressure on Iran, Hollande warned that Paris would back “other sanctions” if Tehran failed to convince on its contested nuclear programme.
“This is a threat which cannot be accepted by France,” Hollande said.
“We have voted for many sanctions and are ready to vote others as long as necessary,” he said, demanding “proof that Iran has abandoned this drive”.
Iran denies Israeli and Western suspicions that its nuclear programme is a cover for efforts to build the atomic bomb, but has been hit by several rounds of UN and Western sanctions over its activities.
Netanyahu — whose country is the only, though undeclared, nuclear armed state in the Middle East — hailed the “extremely important position” taken by Hollande.
Netanyahu has warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state and has repeatedly refused to rule out military action, fuelling speculation that an attack was imminent.
But he then appeared to pull back, ostensibly to allow time for international sanctions to work.
The pugnacious Israeli leader said in an interview published on Wednesday that he believed the Arab world would be relieved if Israel struck at Iranian nuclear facilities.
He said in case of an attack, “five minutes later, contrary to what sceptics think, I believe there will be a great feeling of relief throughout the region.”
“Iran is not popular in the Arab world, far from it,” he said in comments to Paris-Match magazine.
“And some neighbouring regimes and their citizens have well understood that a nuclear-armed Iran is a danger for them, not only for Israel,” he said, without mentioning specific nations.
But Netanyahu later told reporters: “What we want is a peaceful resolution.”
— Rival rallies in France —
Demonstrators in France held pro- and anti-Netanyahu rallies. In Paris, about 200 people gathered in front of the city’s main opera house shouting anti-Netanyahu slogans and protesting at Israeli occupation, but a similar number gathered at the Champs-Elysees shouting “Israel will live, Israel will win.”
In the southern city of Toulouse, about 100 leftwing activists waving Palestinian flags protested against Israeli policies.
On Thursday, Netanyahu is to travel to Toulouse with Hollande to attend a memorial ceremony for three children and a French-Israeli teacher at a Jewish school who were shot dead by an Islamist gunman who also killed soldiers of North African origin.
The Al-Qaeda inspired gunman Mohamed Merah attacked the school on March 19.
France, along with the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, is involved in negotiations with Iran but several rounds of talks have failed to produce much progress on increasing the transparency of Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Hollande also urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks without any conditions, while criticising continued Israeli occupation.
“Only negotiations can lead to a definitive solution,” he said.
“France wants the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians without conditions and with the same goal — one we have been pursuing for years, even decades, two states, a state of Israel where security if guaranteed and a Palestinian state which must be allowed to live.”
Direct negotiations have been on hold for more than two years, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas refusing to negotiate as long as Israel continues to build and approve new Jewish settlements on occupied land.
The Palestinians reacted by saying a settlement freeze was an Israeli commitment, not a condition set by them.
“We are not placing any conditions on the resumption of negotiations,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
Hollande said the two countries had “divergences on occupation, which we want to see halted.”
Netanyahu’s talks with Hollande were held in a “very good atmosphere,” a top Israeli source told AFP.
Since taking office five months ago, Hollande has only spoken to Netanyahu by telephone but met Abbas twice — both times in Paris.
Netanyahu enjoyed close ties with Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who cast himself as a “friend of Israel”, but there was a chill after Sarkozy reportedly called the Israeli prime minister a “liar” in November during a private conversation with US President Barack Obama.
France is home to between 350,000 and 500,000 Jews, according to various estimates. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, more than 90,000 French Jews have settled there.