sarkozy - AP - January 28 2010
French President Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 24, 2009. Photo by AP
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy hinted in an interview  that France may recognize an independent Palestinian state this year, if peace talks with Israel were not back on track by September.

"If the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of recognition of a Palestinian state," Sarkozy said in an interview in France's L'Express magazine.

The French president added that "things have to be brought to a conclusion" before September, when the Palestinians are expected to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize statehood on all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We are going to take an initiative before the summer, with the Europeans, to restart, along with the Americans, the peace process," Sarkozy said. "France wants the peace process to be restarted before the difficult UN meeting in September."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with Sarkozy on Thursday, where his will discuss Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's unity deal with Hamas Islamists as a blow to already dim prospects for peace.

Netanyahu is also due to hold talks in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday.

It will be Netanyahu's first trip abroad since the surprise announcement last week that Abbas and his long-time rival Hamas had agreed to a unity pact that envisages formation of an interim government and Palestinian elections this year.

"This is a major problem and raises all sorts of questions, and that issue will be very much on the table," an Israeli government official said on Tuesday.

"If the (Palestinians) are going for a unity government with Hamas, there's no doubt that's a step in the wrong direction -- a very negative step."

Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas's Fatah movement in 2007, calls for Israel's destruction in its founding charter although it has offered a long-term truce in return for Palestinian statehood.

Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, and the United States and the European Union also shun the group over its refusal to renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

"Obviously, we want the process with the Palestinians to move forward, but up until now their refusal to engage was a problem and now their decision to bring in Hamas, the antithesis of peace, has further aggravated a negative situation," the Israeli official said, giving an overview of Netanyahu's stance.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday that Britain welcomed the deal to end the feud between the factions.

"Of course lots of details have to be worked out and we will have to judge everyone by their actions and intentions. We will continue to work closely on this," Hague said during a visit to Cairo.

Netanyahu is due to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in three weeks' time, and aims to focus on the regional upheaval, Iran's nuclear program and the Palestinian issue. He has given no specific details of what he will say.