JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will on Wednesday travel to France for talks with President Francois Holland with the Iranian nuclear threat topping the agenda.
Netanyahu, who is in the middle of an election campaign ahead of a January vote, will arrive in Paris during the morning and have a working lunch with the French leader.
And later in the day, he will also meet with French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe in what will be his first visit to Paris since Holland took office in May.
The two-day trip is important because it will be Netanyahu’s “first opportunity to talk with President Holland, and he hopes to build a good working relationship with the French leader,” a source close to the Israeli leader told AFP.
Since taking office five months ago, Holland has only spoken to Netanyahu by phone, whereas he has already twice met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas — both times in Paris.
But the central topic of their talks was likely to be the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme, Israeli officials said.
“France is a very important country in the western alliance which is dealing with the Iranian bomb,” a senior official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Netanyahu clearly wants to talk about the Iranian issue with Francois Holland especially after his speech at the UN at the end of September,” he said.
During that speech at the General Assembly, the Israeli prime minister literally drew a red line for Iran on a bomb diagram to stress his warning about the threat of a nuclear-armed Tehran.
Iran denies Israeli and Western views that its nuclear programme is a front for a weapons drive.
Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state and has refused to rule out a pre-emptive strike, fuelling speculation that an attack was imminent.
With the rumour mill working overtime, Holland spoke by phone with Netanyahu in mid-September, urging him to seek a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the Iran standoff.
He also stressed France’s determination that Iran should suspend its nuclear programme and respect UN Security Council resolutions on the issue, officials said.
Two weeks later, during his UN address, Netanyahu appeared to pull back from the brink, pushing back the deadline until spring or even summer 2013, ostensibly to allow time for international sanctions to work.
A diplomatic adviser at the Elysee Palace confirmed that Iran “would be one of the subjects raised” during Wednesday’s talks, without giving any further details.
“This working meeting will focus on deepening bilateral ties, on relaunching the peace process and the upheavals in the Arab world,” he told AFP.
Peace talks with the Palestinians have been on ice for more than two years, but a source close to Netanyahu confirmed the two men would also touch on ways to revive it.
“The only real bone of contention between Netanyahu and Holland is the absence of negotiations with the Palestinians and Israel’s continued settlement,” said Denis Charbit, professor of political science at Israel’s Open University.
But he said the issue of peace talks was not likely to play a central role in their talks as a result of the relative calm on the ground.
On Thursday, Netanyahu was to travel to Toulouse to attend a memorial ceremony for three children and a French-Israeli teacher at a Jewish school who were shot dead by a gunman who also killed soldiers of North African origin.
“Netanyahu wants to send a message of solidarity with victims of terrorism — both Jewish and non-Jewish,” said an Israel source close to the visit.
“He wants to emphasise the importance of unified international action against terrorism.”
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