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France's Hollande assures Israel on Iran nuclear deal

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd R) attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem November 17, 2013. REUTERS/Dan Balilty/Po
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd R) attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem November 17, 2013. REUTERS/Dan Balilty/Po

By Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande assured Israel on Sunday that France would continue to oppose an easing of economic sanctions against Iran until it was convinced Tehran had ended a pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Hollande's pledge, at the start of a three-day visit to Israel, could help underpin an intensive campaign by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convince world powers to toughen terms of a proposed nuclear deal with Iran ahead of negotiations reconvening this week in Geneva.

"France will not give way on nuclear proliferation," Hollande said at a welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv airport. "So long as we are not certain that Iran has renounced nuclear arms, we will keep in place all our demands and sanctions."

After Hollande's state visit, Netanyahu was scheduled to travel to Moscow on Wednesday to see Russian President Vladimir Putin and return to Israel to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday.

Netanyahu has condemned a proposal, to be discussed in a third round of talks between six world powers and Tehran on November 20-23, to ease economic sanctions on Iran if it suspends parts of its nuclear program.

"I hope that we will be able to persuade our friends during this week and in the days that follow to get a much better agreement," Netanyahu said in public remarks at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu says tough measures must not only remain but be strengthened until Iran dismantles its entire uranium enrichment program, arguing that anything less would enable it to develop nuclear bombs.

His position has found support in the U.S. Congress, where legislation to impose tough new sanctions could come to the Senate floor in the coming week.

The Iranian issue will top the agenda in Netanyahu's talks with Hollande. Israel has praised France for taking a tough stance in the previous round, and Tehran accuses Paris of blocking an agreement.

At the airport ceremony, attended by Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres, Hollande said France was taking Israel's concerns into account, adding in Hebrew: "I will always remain a friend of Israel."

Kerry has caused a stir in Israel by accusing it of over-reacting in its opposition to the proposed deal.

"John Kerry is a old friend of mine and is also a friend of Israel," Netanyahu said, voicing a more conciliatory tone than at the end of an acrimonious visit by the top U.S. diplomat last week.

"I want to clarify that even among the best of friends there can be disagreements, certainly on matters that concern our future and our destiny," the Israeli leader said.

Netanyahu has said he would not be bound by the terms of the Iran deal and reiterated that Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, could take military action if it thought Iran was close to getting an atomic bomb.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

In Washington on Friday, a senior U.S. official said that a deal was "quite possible" at the upcoming talks in Geneva although tough issues remained unresolved.

"For the first time in nearly a decade, we are getting close to a first step ... that would stop the Iranian nuclear program from advancing and roll it back in key areas," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

U.S. President Barack Obama has urged U.S. lawmakers not to impose new sanctions on Iran while talks continue.

Relations with close allies Israel and the United States have also been strained recently over the lack of progress in peace talks with Palestinians.

Kerry has censured Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, and Hollande's aides said he would also convey his disapproval of settlement expansion.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall)

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