Hollande meets Abbas to talk Mideast peace

AFP , Monday 18 Nov 2013

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd L) and French President Francois Hollande (C) walk past an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah November 18, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

French President Francois Hollande was meeting the Palestinian leadership on Monday 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 programme, Hollande headed to the West Bank's political capital Ramallah for a morning of talks with president Mahmud 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 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 programme 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 programmes.

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 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 programme, 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 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.

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