France's Hollande to Visit Israel, Reap Reward for Stance on Iran

French president's trip is first since election 18 months ago; aides say visit will focus on the next round of Iran talks in Geneva.

French President Francois Hollande lands in Israel Sunday afternoon for his first official visit as president, after receiving accolades from Israeli officials for apparently blocking an agreement with Iran that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had termed “a bad deal.”

A warm welcome is expected for the French leader, who will push home his advantage on Iran by “strongly reiterating” that “Iran’s military nuclear program must stop,” according to French sources.

The three days of talks are expected to focus on Iran and increasing economic cooperation between France and Israel. Hollande is expected to visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hollande will urge both the Palestinians and Israelis to make compromises for peace, sources in the French presidency said.

In an interview published Saturday, Netanyahu told French daily Le Figaro that Israel “salutes Hollande’s firm stance on the Iranian issue,” adding, “We hope France doesn’t give in.”

But it is contracts rather than compliments that are most matter to Hollande these days, as he struggles to right his country’s financial difficulties. Faced with a collapse in exports and record unemployment, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced a new “economic diplomacy” push in August 2012. Diplomats, he said, would be required to have a focus on business.

Saudi Arabia and Israel - both enemies of Iran - are among the countries where France is looking for deals in transport, defense, technology and other sectors.

Hollande will be received at Ben-Gurion International Airport with a state ceremony to be attended by President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and government ministers. Hollande is coming to Israel with his life partner Valérie Trierweiler and several government ministers – Fabius, Economy and Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici, and deputy ministers for local government, transportation, research, innovation and Francophone affairs.

The entourage also includes some 40 senior French businessmen, including the heads of Alstom transport company and construction giant Bouygues, and some 60 journalists.

After the airport reception, Hollande will go to Beit Hanassi to meet with Peres. He will then head to Mount Herzl, where he will lay wreaths on the graves of Theodor Herzl and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He will then go to Yad Vashem and lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance.

On Sunday evening, Hollande will hold a working meeting with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence, after which the two will hold a joint press conference and sign cooperation agreements. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, will then host the French presidential couple for dinner.

Monday, Hollande is scheduled to visit St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem’s Old City, after which he will travel to Ramallah for talks with Abbas.

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.

Swiss forensic tests have concluded he was probably poisoned. The French investigation is still ongoing.

Later Monday afternoon Hollande will address a special session of the Knesset and proceed to a state dinner at Beit Hanassi.

On Tuesday morning, Hollande will visit the Har Hamenuhot Cemetery and lay stones on the graves of the victims of the March 2012 shooting at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse. That attack, by Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah, was the worst assault on Jews in France in 30 years, and led to a tightening of antiterrorism legislation.

From there he will proceed to Tel Aviv for a conference on French-Israeli economic cooperation, to be attended by representatives of more than 200 French and Israeli high-tech companies. He will then meet representatives of the French immigrant community, at an event at Tel Aviv University.

Hollande will fly back to France on Tuesday afternoon.