Hollande Calls for Building Halt, Palestinian Flexibility

RAMALLAH (Reuters) -

French President Francois Hollande made an unexpected proposal for a tradeoff on Monday: A complete halt to Israeli building in Yehudah and Shomron in return for Palestinian flexibility on their demand for a so-called “right of return” for the 1948 refugees.

“For the sake of peace and to reach a deal, France calls for the total and definitive end to building because it compromises the two-state solution,” Hollande said at a news conference with PA  President Mahmoud Abbas during a visit to Ramallah.

He commended Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for his recent decision canceling Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s plan for more than 20,000 homes in Yehuda and Shomron.

Abbas, for his part, insisted again that the building issue is “the greatest threat that could end the peace process and lead to its failure.”

But he reaffirmed that talks with Israel would continue for the full nine-month period agreed with the United States.

Flexibility on the refugee issue will be slow in coming, if at all. Palestinian sources told Haaretz that Abbas cannot deviate from the positions approved by the Arab League.

“There are five million Palestinian refugees for whom we must find a solution, and the Arab Initiative speaks in the most clear terms of a ‘just and agreed-upon’ solution,” Abbas told reporters after his meeting with Hollande.

During the press conference, Hollande clarified France’s position, speaking of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon exchanges of territories and Yerushalayim as the shared capital of both states.

Hollande met Abbas in Ramallah, the Palestinians’ headquarters, where he laid a wreath on the grave of Yasser Arafat, their arch-terrorist who founded the PLO.

After a public signing of economic aid and development agreements, Hollande said France had donated more in budget support to the Palestinians than to any other nation.

Palestinian negotiators last week offered to resign in protest against Israel’s announced building plans, but Palestinian officials confirmed to Reuters that they would likely stay in place until they agreed to return or a new delegation was formed.

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, told Israeli radio on Monday that her Palestinian counterpart was “back in business” and that talks, paused for more than a week, would resume.

Later in the day, Hollande returned to Israel where his strong affirmation of French friendship found a warm reception at the Knesset.

The French president asked “to salute the entire Jewish people, whose genealogy is entwined with the history of the whole of humanity.” He emphasized the strong connection between Israel and France, clarifying that “friends tell the truth even when they disagree.”

“France has always been at Israel’s side, from its first day, to support its right to exist. Sixty-five years later, I come to say in Israel, in the name of France: The friendship between us is firm, more than the passing leaders who come and go, and even more than ups and downs of international life.”

On the Iranian issue, Hollande said, “We have nothing against Iran or the Iranian people. The Iranian people deserve civil nuclear energy, but we will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons because that poses a threat to Israel and regional countries, but also to the world.”

Holland’s pledge elicited a resounding ovation from the assembled MKs.

Regarding the peace process, Hollande repeated his call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and asked for more goodwill gestures from both Israel and the Palestinians.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy addressed the Knesset in 2008 and former president of France Jacques Chirac gave a speech in the Knesset in 1987, when he was prime minister. Then-president of France François Mitterand spoke in the Knesset in 1982.