France's Hollande heads to Israel ahead of Iran talks

France's Hollande heads to Israel ahead of Iran talks
People walk past a souvenir shop in Jerusalem's Old City displaying a T-shirt picturing French President Francois Hollande wearing the traditional Arab Keffiyeh head scarf on November 16, 2013

TEL AVIV - French President Francois Hollande heads to Israel on Sunday hoping to give a push to stalled peace talks with the Palestinians despite Israel's preoccupation with negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme.

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.

He is accompanied by the heads of Alstom, Arianespace and Vinci as well as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, a key participant in talks on curbing Iran's nuclear programme which ended in deadlock last weekend.

On Sunday he will meet President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has described the French president as "a close friend of the state of Israel".

Netanyahu and Peres have both urged France, which took a tougher line than its Western partners in last weekend's negotiations with Iran, to maintain its firm stance at the next round of talks which open on November 20.

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

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

The P5+1 group negotiating with Tehran is made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - plus Germany.

Netanyahu will fly to Moscow on Wednesday to raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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.

Ovadia Sofer, a former Israeli ambassador to Paris, says France is not a disinterested observer in the Middle East, recalling it held the League of Nations mandate to rule Syria and Lebanon following World War I.

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