French President Francois Hollande arrived Sunday for a high-profile visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in the midst of ongoing deliberations over Iran’s nuclear program.
Hollande will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the nuclear talks with Iran slated to be restarted Wednesday in Geneva. He will also deliver a speech in the Knesset.
“They’re coming as friends and will be received as friends,” Netanyahu said of the French delegation at the weekly cabinet meeting just two hours before Hollande’s plane touched down in Tel Aviv.
Hundreds of policemen were deployed in the capital, and Route 1, the highway leading from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem, was closed from 1:30 pm until 3:00 pm. Main roads in Jerusalem will be shut intermittently from 2:30 pm until the evening.
The trip is Hollande’s first to Israel as head of state. He was elected in May 2012.
In last week’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — Paris’s tough position on Iran was said to have prevented the global powers from signing an interim agreement with Tehran, one that would have included limited sanctions relief in return for a partial freeze of the country’s nuclear program. France apparently blocked what its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, called “a sucker’s deal,” although Kerry said it was the Iranians who chose not to sign the accord last Saturday, and US officials say a deal on the terms presented at Geneva could be signed when the talks resume on Wednesday.
Hollande was receiving a particularly warm welcome in Israel in the wake of the position France took at the negotiations.
Netanyahu told French daily Le Figaro Friday that Israel stands behind France and called on Hollande “not to waver” on the country’s objections to an interim nuclear deal with Tehran. ”We hope that France will not yield in its stance toward Iran,” Netanyahu told the French newspaper.
“Even if France hadn’t been so firm in the negotiations about the Iranian nuclear issue, I am convinced that Francois Hollande would have been received just as well by the Knesset,” President Shimon Peres told the Journal de Dimanche newspaper. “But it’s true that we in Israel really appreciated France’s firm position regarding Iran… We understand that what happens in Geneva is only the first stage and that there will be others, but for us it is important that the pressure [on the Iranians] not be eased.”
Hollande will be accompanied by seven senior members of his government.
“The French president is a close friend of the State of Israel and I look forward to hosting him and his partner Valérie Trierweiler in Israel, especially at this time when the major powers, including France, are discussing ways to halt the Iranian nuclear program,” Netanyahu said Thursday.
“I am also pleased to host his team and French government ministers, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is taking an active and important part in the talks currently being held by the major powers. Together we will work to advance and deepen bilateral strategic and economic relations,” the prime minister added.
Netanyahu and Hollande will sign a joint statement hailing “the continued growth of bilateral relations” and expressing “the determination to continue and deepen cooperation in many areas of strategic importance, and the strengthening of economic, scientific, educational and cultural ties between the two countries,” the Prime Minister’s Office announced.
Netanyahu and Peres greeted the French dignitaries at Ben Gurion Airport at around 1 pm on Sunday. As in the visit of US President Barack Obama in March, the three leaders held a ceremony on the tarmac before heading for the capital.
In Jerusalem, Hollande will plant a tree in the garden of the President’s Residence and hold a first meeting with Peres. He will also lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl and place a stone on the grave of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his late wife Leah.
Accompanied by Peres and Netanyahu, Hollande will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance.
The meeting on Iran between Hollande and Netanyahu is scheduled for 6 pm Sunday evening. The two leaders will hold a joint press conference after the work meeting, and then dine together.
On Monday, Hollande and Fabius will continue to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In the late afternoon, Hollande will address the Knesset plenum, which will convene for a special session in his honor. Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich are also scheduled to speak.
On Wednesday, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — the so-called P5+1 — will gather in Geneva to negotiate a nuclear deal Israel firmly opposes.
Also Wednesday, Netanyahu will fly to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin, and will return to Israel Friday for talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry.