JERUSALEM (AP) — Visiting French President Francois Hollande vowed to maintain his country's tough stance in upcoming nuclear talks with Iran this week, earning praise from his Israeli hosts Sunday as he began a three-day visit to the Jewish state.
Israel has repeatedly voiced concern that the emerging deal global powers are negotiating with Iran gives it too much, without guaranteeing that the Islamic Republic's ability to develop a nuclear weapon is eliminated.
Hollande vowed to keep up pressure on Iran and not make any concessions regarding nuclear proliferation. "If there hadn't been sanctions, if they hadn't been enforced, it's clear that we would never even have had the words from Iran — and I don't yet speak of actions — that we had in the last few weeks," he said In a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We have a duty to resolve this problem that has been under discussions for too many years because Iran for too long has participated in discussions without taking actions."
Netanyahu has been outspoken in his opposition to a potential deal in which the international community would ease some sanctions on Iran in exchange for some curbs on Iran's nuclear program. The countries fear that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies.
Speaking alongside Hollande, Netanyahu once again warned that Iran could soon have enough fissile material to develop a bomb within weeks and that Israel would not be bound to what he called a "bad deal." At the same time, he thanked Hollande for leading a tough stance that has blocked a deal thus far.
The warm atmosphere comes at a time when Israel increasingly finds itself at odds with its top ally, the United States, over the talks with Iran. Netanyahu has tried to play down his differences with the Obama administration as a disagreement between the "best of friends," but he went out of his way to charm Hollande — peppering his remarks with French and embracing him often.
Hollande, accompanied by his companion Valerie Trierweiler, was welcomed by an honor guard at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. With trumpets playing in the background, a line of politicians, religious leaders and other dignitaries greeted the French leader. Later, he visited Israel's national cemetery as well as Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial, before a meeting and dinner with Netanyahu.
"Israel sees in France a true friend," Netanyahu said at the ceremony. Initially a strong ally of Israel, France was an early provider of weapons to the country and was instrumental in establishing Israel's nuclear program. But relations soured after the 1967 Mideast war, when France imposed an arms embargo and began adopting more policies critical of Israel.
Many Israelis have traditionally viewed France as biased in favor of the Palestinians, and reports of rising anti-Semitism toward the French Jewish community — at 600,000 the third-largest in the world — has only fanned the flames.
Relations warmed significantly under Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Hollande's tough stance on the Iranian nuclear program has made him popular with Israelis. The six powers negotiating with Iran — the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — failed to reach an agreement earlier this month. The U.S. has expressed optimism that an initial deal can be wrapped up at the next round of talks, providing a six-month period to reach a final agreement.
Netanyahu believes the sanctions seriously have weakened Iran and that providing any relief, even temporarily, will be lead to the crumbling of international pressure. He has urged the world to step up, not ease, the pressure on Iran until it completely dismantles what he says is a military nuclear program.
Netanyahu's strong objections have raised tensions with the U.S., which said his concerns are premature. Meanwhile, Hollande has struck a tone far more amenable to Israeli ears. "The goal is that Iran renounces nuclear weapons forever," he said Sunday. "We are against nuclear proliferation, and in Iran there has been a will — even once expressed — to enrich uranium to military capabilities."
Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its very existence, citing its repeated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, Tehran's long-range missile program and its support for violent anti-Israel groups like the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Netanyahu has repeatedly denounced the potential agreement between the six powers and Iran and hinted at readiness to attack Iran if it appears close to getting a bomb, saying Israel is ready to "defend itself."
Invoking the memory of the Holocaust, Netanyahu said it was his obligation to prevent it from happening again. "It is my duty to prevent anyone from credibly threatening or executing another Holocaust against the Jewish people," he said. "When someone says they are out to destroy you we have learned in our Jewish history to take them seriously."
Netanyahu said the Iran talks would dominate discussions with Hollande, as well as meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Jerusalem on Friday.
Newly restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are also on the agenda and Hollande is to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday in the West Bank.