French President Francois Hollande is scheduled to arrive Sunday for a high-profile visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, in the midst of ongoing deliberations over Iran’s nuclear program. Highlights of the trip include meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during which the November 20 second round of nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva will take center stage, and a speech in the Knesset.
Hollande, who will be accompanied by seven senior members of his government, can look forward to a hero’s welcome in Jerusalem, as Paris’s tough position on Iran apparently prevented the global powers last week from signing an interim deal with Tehran that would have included limited sanctions relief in return for a partial freeze of the country’s nuclear program.
“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.
“France defines the promotion of its political and economic status in the Middle East as a top objective of its national security policy,” Tsilla Hershco, an expert on Franco-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, wrote in a new paper published Thursday.
“In media interviews, Fabius mentions French attentiveness to the concerns of Israel and other countries in the region regarding the Iranian threat. France maintains a constant strategic dialogue with Israel and appreciates Israeli professional assessments on Iran.”
Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres will greet 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 will hold 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.
The French president’s next stop will be Mt. Herzl, where he will 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.
At around 6 pm, Hollande will arrive at the Prime Minister’s Office for a tête-à-tête with Netanyahu, which is scheduled to last for about an hour and a half. On the agenda: Iran, Iran and yet more Iran.
Netanyahu, who has been adamant in his opposition to the interim deal the international community is considering signing with Tehran, will try his utmost to convince Hollande to stand his ground during upcoming rounds of negotiations.
After their meeting, the two leaders will hold a joint press conference and then proceed to dine together.
Not far from the Prime Minister’s Residence, the French ministers, including Fabius and Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, will have dinner with their Israeli counterparts at the King David Hotel.
On Monday morning, Hollande will meet with French clergymen in the Church of St. Anne, in Jerusalem’s Old City, which the Ottomans donated to France in 1856.
From there, Hollande and Fabius will continue to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The French president is also expected to lay a wreath at the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004 in a French hospital and whose remains were recently examined for traces of poisoning.
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.
Later on Tuesday, Hollande will hold another meeting with Peres before attending a state dinner at the President’s Residence, in the company of the prime minister, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
On Tuesday morning, Hollande will lay stones on the graves of the victims of the March 2012 attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse — Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, his two children Gavriel and Arieh, ages 5 and 4, and Miriam Monsonego, age 7.
From Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot cemetery, where the Sandlers are buried, the guests from Paris will drive to Tel Aviv for business-related events. Peres, Holland and Netanyahu will give speeches related to bilateral trade, economic cooperation and innovation.
Hollande will then meet with members of the French community in Israel at Tel Aviv University at an event which will mark the conclusion of his visit.
The visit of Hollande and Fabius in Israel comes at a crucial time. Just a few hours after they leave the country on Tuesday afternoon, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — the so-called P5+1 — will gather in Geneva to negotiate a nuclear deal Israel staunchly rejects.
Last week, Iran and the six world powers came close to signing an interim agreement with Iran that would offer limited sanctions relief in exchange for halting uranium enrichment at 20 percent purity, while enrichment to the level of 3.5% would continue. But no agreement was signed, reportedly because of reservations raised by the French that were subsequently adopted by the other powers.
Fabius later said that “we want a deal…but not a sucker’s deal.”
According to France’s ambassador in Israel, Patrick Maisonnave, the world powers adopted the French position on a possible agreement with Tehran which demanded more significant concessions from the Iranians.
Speaking to Israeli reporters Wednesday in Tel Aviv, Maisonnave said the other five nations negotiating with Iran in Geneva had accepted Fabius’s position after he voiced his reservations.
All six nations agreed that Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons, but it was Paris that demanded more guarantees, Maisonnave said. France’s position was then adopted by the US and the other world powers.
Maisonnave said the P5+1 came close to an agreement the last round of talks in Geneva, but that Fabius felt that “France’s conditions were not met” in the draft that was presented to him, according to Ha’aretz.
The French ambassador reportedly said Paris demanded additional Iranian guarantees in three areas. Fabius was worried about the Iranians’ heavy water reactor in Arak, fearing it could produce plutonium, and so required guarantees which would prohibit Tehran from using it to advance their nuclear capabilities.
Secondly, Fabius argued that Tehran was continuously increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium and that guarantees should be sought in this area as well.
While France supports Iran’s right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, the country does not need to operate uranium enrichment facilities, Ha’aretz quoted Maisonnave as saying.
Speaking to Israeli reporters, the ambassador said the question of Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil was a major bone of contention among the P5+1 during the Geneva talks last week, requiring an additional round of negotiations.