French President Francois Hollande met Palestinian leadership on Monday to discuss the faltering Middle East peace process after a day of talks in Israel focused heavily on Iran.
In a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Hollande said that the best guarantee for the safety of Israelis is a Palestinian state, and further reiterated that "France is against building in the settlements... and calls to put an end to settlements."
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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 president Mahmoud Abbas.
At the press conference, Hollande stressed: "France is against building in the settlements. France demands a full and complete halt to settlement activity since it complicates the negotiation so much. I've said this frankly to the Israelis," the French president said.
Abbas said that he and Hollande were "discussing the obstacles the peace process in the Mideast in facing," saying that settlement construction was the most dangerous issue the peace process faces, and that it can bring to its collapse.
Abbas also mentioned Israel's holding of Palestinian prisoners, and talked about the issue of banning goods from settlements, saying, nonetheless, that "We won't call for a boycott of Israel. Our relationship with Israel is good."
On arrival at the Muqataa presidential compound, a brief 15-minute drive from Jerusalem, the French leader paid his respects at the tomb of Yasser Arafat, who died nine years ago under mysterious circumstances which Swiss experts now say was probably due to poisoning.
Hollande then met Abbas for talks in which he was expected to present a budgetary support package worth 10 million euros, 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 some 50 million euros per year through the European Union and various development programs.
Abbas told AFP on Sunday that the Palestinians were committed to seeing out the full nine months of talks as agreed with Washington – a deadline which expires in late April.
"We have committed to continue the negotiations for nine months, regardless of what happens on the ground," he told AFP in an exclusive interview.
Hollande's meetings in Israel on Sunday were dominated by the Iranian nuclear issue, although he did raise the matter of 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, although he did not indicate what that might involve.
"Settlement building will not make reaching an agreement easy, settlement building is complicating what could be a final agreement," he said on Sunday. "If you want peace, you need to have gestures towards peace."
But France was also expecting "efforts" from the Palestinians. "It is clear that this will require efforts from the Palestinians as a number of Israeli settlements will remain," a member of Hollande's entourage 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.
The speech will also deliver a "strong message" on the peace process and a "very clear message" on Iran's nuclear program, French officials said.
Hollande had on Sunday reiterated his nation's "unwavering support" for Israel and vowed that Paris would not yield on the Iranian nuclear issue.
"For France, as long as we are not certain that Iran has decided to give up on nuclear weapons, we will continue with all our demands and with sanctions," he said.
Hollande's 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 November 10 without agreement, with France taking a tougher stance than its Western partners in a move which won glowing praise in Israel.
AFP contributed to this report
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