Ismail Haniya - AFP - 2.5.2011
Hamas head Ismail Haniya, left, shakes hands with a man during May Day celebrations in Gaza City, May 2, 2011. Photo by AFP
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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has hinted in an interview that France may recognize an independent Palestinian state this year, if peace talks with Israel are 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 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 tomorrow, and will present Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's unity deal with Hamas as a blow to already dim prospects for peace. Netanyahu is also due to hold talks in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron today.

This will be Netanyahu's first trip abroad since the surprise announcement last week that Fatah and its 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 yesterday. "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.