French president: Nuclear Iran is totally unacceptable

Sarkozy stresses the importance of Israel as Jewish homeland; says Israel not alone in stopping Iran.

sarkozy and skeleton 224 (photo credit: )
sarkozy and skeleton 224
(photo credit: )
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's address to the Knesset Monday offered Israel a strong stamp of support against Iran's nuclear program, but carried with it a heavy dose of criticism, calling on Israel to make broad concessions toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. "I reiterate here in the clearest manner: As far as France is concerned, a nuclear Iran is totally unacceptable," Sarkozy declared, but then tempered his comments by adding that "France is determined to continue to lead, along with its partners, a policy that integrates gradually intensifying sanctions with openness, in case Iran chooses to honor its international obligations." "France is Israel's friend, and will always stand by her side when her security or existence are threatened," said the French president. "Those who scandalously call for the destruction of Israel will always, always, find France blocking their path." But Sarkozy took a less congenial tone when discussing Israel's policies in the West Bank, as well as his understanding of the future face of final status agreements that would see a Palestinian state rise alongside the Jewish one. "Peace cannot be achieved without a complete and immediate cessation of the settlements," Sarkozy de-clared, then going on to offer his support for plans to reimburse settlers for their houses in order to encourage them to leave the West Bank of their own accord. Sarkozy offered European funding to help back up such initiatives to bring about a two-state solution. "Peace cannot be achieved without solving the problem of the Palestinian refugees, while respecting the identity and purpose of Israel," he added. "Peace cannot be achieved without the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of two states and guaranteeing freedom of access to holy sites for all religions." Although met by stony silence from the right-wing and center parties, Sarkozy's comments were greeted by bursts of applause from representatives of Meretz and the Arab parties. Sarkozy emphasized repeatedly that his criticism came upon the basis of friendship with Israel, arguing that "a true friend must be honest with their companion." At a state dinner at Beit Hanassi held in his honor Monday night, Sarkozy set aside his prepared text, which had been handed out to the 250 guests, and said he wanted to speak from the heart. "There is no light, anywhere in the world, like there is here," he said. He also praised Israel for its "grand democracy" even though, he said, the nuances of the politics here are not always understood abroad. As he said in his speech at the Knesset, Sarkozy empathized deeply with the difficulty of life in Israel, and the fear of terrorism that affects everyone. "But you are stronger than you think" he said, "and you have more friends than you think." Sarkozy then said the strong need to extend their hand first, adding "I say to Israel that it is time to extend your hand." President Shimon Peres took up Sarkozy's challenge even before he issued it. Speaking before the French president, Peres called on the leaders of the Arab world to engage in open and direct negotiations. They should come here, or invite our leaders to them - to Damascus, Beirut, Riyadh or any relevant capital. Peres said the Arabs could present the Arab league peace plan, and Israel would present its position. "We will try to build a bridge between them," he said. Sarkozy and his wife, the high-profile model-singer Carla Bruni, were in Israel on a state visit, and arrived at the Knesset late Monday morning after a visit to Yad Vashem. In the course of his speech, Sarkozy also addressed the issue of IDF soldier and French citizen Gilad Schalit, expressing his hope for a "quick release" for the Hamas hostage, whose family was in the visitor's gallery, together with the families of Hizbullah hostages Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Sarkozy repeatedly emphasized the importance of Israel's democratic values, ad-libbing a compliment after Arab MKs interrupted opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's words of greeting to the French president. "The Knesset is a symbol - and I saw this a few minutes ago - of one of the truest and most authentic democracies in the world. And I would only hope that in every parliament in the world it would be possible to stop a speech in the name of freedom and freedom of expression. That is democracy, and that is Israeli democracy." Although Netanyahu spoke before Sarkozy, his speech was in part an answer to the French president's charges. While emphasizing the close connections between Israel and France, and even drawing parallels between Sarkozy's attempts at economic reforms and his own such attempts while serving as prime minister, Netanyahu also took care to emphasize that Israel held certain red lines when discussing final status agreements with the Palestinians. "My friend, president, the Palestinians believe that the people of Israel who prayed for two thousand years to return to Jerusalem will give up pieces of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. They are wrong. It will not happen," he declared. "We will never divide Jerusalem. Just as nobody would ever imagine dividing up any European capital on an ethnic or demographic basis, we too will not allow Jerusalem to be divided." Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik emphasized to the French president the danger that the Iranian nuclear program presented to Israel. Olmert appealed to Sarkozy as the incoming president of the European Union to use the position to press for greater sanctions against Teheran. "I am positive that this is a wonderful opportunity to lead the Union, under your leadership, to a unified and unshaking position against the Iranian nuclear threat," he said, thanking Sarkozy for his "declaration that Israel's security is non-negotiable and for your steadfast and decisive stance vis-à-vis the danger of nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran, whose president has publicly called to wipe Israel off the map." But support for Sarkozy's speech was far from unified across the political spectrum. Right-wing MKs railed against his declarations regarding Jerusalem. "Sarkozy should extend his visit in Israel in order to study history. Jerusalem was never holy to Islam, but only to the Jewish people. And he should study geography and visit Sderot and the camps of Gush Katif refugees in Nitzan before he suggests supporting 'evacuation-compensation' and returning to the '67 borders," complained MK Zevulun Orlev (NU-NRP). "His friendship with Israel must be built upon those two lessons." "Dividing Jerusalem into two authorities will not bring about peace but rather a continuation of hostilities," said MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud). "The settlements are not a stumbling-block to peace, they are what provided a basis for the people of Israel in their land." On the left, however, MKs including Avshalom Vilan (Meretz) welcomed Sarkozy's support for what was essentially a Meretz platform. "I hope that France, which will ascend the EU presidency next week, will take steps to help further this important piece of legislation," said Vilan, one of the initial sponsors of the evacuation-compensation initiative. Herb Keinon contributed to this report.•