French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during a welcoming ceremony
French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival in Israel, Nov. 17, 2013. Photo by AP
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French President Francois Hollande, left, hugs Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as President Shimon Peres sits upon his arrival in Israel, Nov. 17, 2013. Photo by AP

French President Francois Hollande arrived Sunday in Tel Aviv on his first official visit as head of state to Israel, which has welcomed Paris' tough stance in talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres received the large French delegation, which also includes Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Netanyahu told Hollande he is leading "a courageous stand against Iran's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons." "Zionism was influenced by the values of the French Revolution," Netanyahu said. "Israel sees France as a true friend. France. like Israel, aspires for a stable Middle East that lives in peace and security." He added that France "understands well" the danger of radical elements "that don't hesitate to use terrorism and violence."

President Peres welcomed Hollande "to the Holy Land," saying: "The citizens of Israel owe historic debt to France on its help to build Israel's defense forces after the state was formed." He added: "France of the resistance helped to break the arms embargo against Israel in the first years of our state."

Upon his arrival, Hollande declared that France takes Israel's position on Iran seriously, adding that his country will not cave in on this issue. Until we are sure that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, said Hollande, we will not relieve sanctions. The French president added that not only would a nuclear Iran be a threat to Israel, but it would endanger the Middle East and the world at large.

With regards to negotiations for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Hollande said any agreement reached between the sides must end the conflict and all its claims.

Hollande saluted Israel as a "great democracy" of which it should be proud, and said, in Hebrew, "I will always remain a friend of Israel."

Hours before Hollande landed, Netanyahu said he would launch a major push next week to change the "bad deal" that world powers were negotiating with Iran.

He said the issue would dominate Hollande's 48-hour visit to Israel. The French leader will also visit the West Bank for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"This visit is important ... in light of the talks that are being held in Geneva on the Iranian nuclear issue," Netanyahu told his cabinet in Jerusalem.

"I hope that we will succeed in convincing our friends this week, and the days after, to reach a much better deal," he said.

The Iranian issue would also dominate Netanyahu's talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday and with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is due in the region on Friday for his second visit in 10 days.

A continuation, or even intensification, of the sanctions on Iran, rather than a let-up, would yield "much better results" in the diplomatic negotiations, the Israeli premier said.

Hollande is scheduled to first meet Peres at the presidential residence in Jerusalem and tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial institute, followed by dinner with Netanyahu.

He is to address Israel's Knesset, or parliament, on Monday, and Tuesday visit the graves of the victims of a March 2012 terrorist attack on a French Jewish school.

The attack by Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah in Toulouse was the worst assault on Jews in France in 30 years, and led to a tightening of anti-terrorism legislation.

In Ramallah, Hollande will lay a wreath at the mausoleum of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was exhumed and reburied last year as part of a French murder inquiry into whether he was poisoned with the radioactive poison, polonium-210.

DPA contributed to this report.