Herve Asquin, AFP
Last updated: 17 November, 2013

France’s Hollande heads to Israel ahead of Iran talks

France will never tolerate nuclear proliferation, President Francois Hollande vowed on Sunday as Israel expressed “grave concern” about a looming deal between world powers and Iran.

As the French leader arrived in Israel on his first state visit, the question of how to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions loomed large over his talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But as he sought to reassure Israel of France’s absolute determination to disarm Iran, he also made clear that the peace process was high on his agenda, saying Paris expected “gestures” from Israel over its construction of settlements in order to advance talks with the Palestinians.

The visit comes three days before the P5+1 group of world powers are to resume talks with Iran in Geneva to eke out a deal for scaling back Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

A previous round of talks ended on November 10 without agreement, with France taking a tougher stance than its Western partners in a move which won glowing praise in Israel.

Hollande laid out four demands which he said must be in place for any deal to be successful.

“France is in favour of an interim agreement but on the basis of four points,” he said at a joint news conference with Netanyahu.

“The first demand: put all the Iranian nuclear installations under international supervision, right now. Second point: suspend enrichment to 20 percent. Thirdly: to reduce the existing stock.

“And finally, to halt construction of the Arak (heavy water) plant. These are the points which for us are essential to guarantee any agreement.”

Israel has reacted furiously at the prospect of cutting a deal with Iran, warning the international community it was likely to reach a better deal by keeping the sanctions in place or even ratcheting them up.

“I’m concerned, gravely concerned, that this deal will go through and in one stroke of the pen, it will reduce the sanctions on Iran — sanctions that took years to put in place — and in return for this, Iran gives practically nothing,” Netanyahu said.

“It’s clear that this agreement is good only for Iran and that it’s really bad for the rest of the world,” he said. “Iran’s dream deal is the world’s nightmare.”

‘Gestures’ on settlements

Israel is the sole if undeclared nuclear power in the region, and along with world powers suspects Iran of trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capability — an allegation Tehran denies.

Netanyahu will fly to Russia on Wednesday for talks with President Vladimir Putin, as part of his drive to prevent world leaders from handing Iran “the deal of the century” by easing the sanctions.

He will also discuss the matter in Jerusalem with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday.

Hollande, making his first since he became president in 2012, travels Monday to the Palestinian territories to discuss the peace talks which have limped along for three months with little signs of progress.

France, he said, expects Israel to make “gestures” over its construction of settlements on land the Palestinians want for a future state, which is threatening to sabotage peace talks.

“Some gestures have already been started by Israel,” he said referring to Israel’s release of 52 veteran Palestinian prisoners. “Other gestures are expected, especially in the area of settlements.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he was committed to seeing out the full nine months of negotiations as agreed with Washington, despite Israel’s continued settlement building.

“We have committed to continue the negotiations for nine months, regardless of what happens on the ground,” Abbas told AFP in an exclusive interview, just days after his entire team of negotiators resigned to protest the settlement constructions.

He said the negotiators would remain in place for the time being and the Palestinian leadership would decide what to do next at the end of the nine months.

Abbas also called for an international inquiry to determine who was responsible for the death of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after scientists said it was likely he was poisoned.

Arafat died at the age of 75 in a French hospital on November 11, 2004 after falling sick a month earlier. The Palestinians have long suspected Israeli involvement but there has never been any proof.