French President Francois Hollande was meeting the Palestinian leadership yesterday to discuss the faltering Middle East peace process after a day of talks in Israel focused heavily on Iran.
After being warmly received in Jerusalem following France’s strong stance in world talks with Iran over its contested nuclear program, Hollande headed to the West Bank’s political capital Ramallah for a morning of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
On arrival at the Muqataa presidential compound, a brief 15-minute drive from Jerusalem, the French leader paid his respects at the tomb of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died nine years ago.
Hollande then met Abbas for talks in which he was expected to present a budgetary support package worth 10 million euros (US$13.5 million), a training program for Palestinian Authority staff and confirm the opening of a French high school in Ramallah.
Paris is one of the biggest international donors to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, providing about 50 million euros per year through the EU and various development programs.
Israel’s ongoing settlement building, which has threatened repeatedly to bring down the talks, is likely to be the dominant issue at their meeting.
However, Abbas on Sunday said that the Palestinians were committed to seeing out the full nine months of talks as agreed with Washington — a deadline that expires in late April.
“We have committed to continue the negotiations for nine months, regardless of what happens on the ground,” he said.
Hollande’s meetings in Israel on Sunday were dominated by the Iranian issue, although he did raise the matter of peace talks which have limped along for three months with little signs of progress.
France will never tolerate nuclear proliferation, he said as Israel expressed “grave concern” about a looming deal between world powers and Iran.
However, 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 program in exchange for sanctions relief.
A previous round of talks ended on Nov. 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 favor of an interim agreement but on the basis of four points,” he said at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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,” Hollande said.
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,” he said.
On his return to Jerusalem, Hollande will address the Israeli parliament in a speech aimed at reaffirming France’s commitment to Israel’s security.
Netanyahu will fly to Russia tomorrow for talks with Russian 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.