By John Irish
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron said France was determined Iran would never gain a nuclear weapon but it wanted to avoid any military escalation in the Middle East, after he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Macron’s two-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories is timed to coincide with the 75-year anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
He is one of dozens of world leaders due to attend Thursday’s World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.
Macron started his visit with a morning meeting with Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem, where the two discussed Iran’s nuclear program and regional security issues from Libya to Turkey, according to Netanyahu’s office.
“In the current context, France is determined that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon, but also that we avoid all military escalations in the region,” Macron said afterwards.
Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli leader urged Macron to put pressure on Iran over what he called its aggression in the region.
France, along with Britain and Germany, declared Iran in violation of the 2015 nuclear pact last week and they launched a dispute mechanism that could see the matter referred back to the Security Council and the reimposition of U.N. sanctions.
The nuclear dispute has been at the heart of an escalation between Washington and Tehran which blew up into military confrontation in recent weeks.
Macron is also due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday afternoon in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank at a time when peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians look dim.
The Palestinians are boycotting a peace initiative by U.S. President Donald Trump, and Netanyahu has repeated pledges to annex Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank.
France believes a two-state solution is the only viable option to end the conflict but Macron has ruled out recognizing an independent Palestinian state, saying it would not serve peace efforts.
Macron last week played down any real prospect of renewing French efforts to push the peace process, stalled since 2014, saying it was not for him to dictate to either side.
At a campaign rally for his right-wing Likud party on Tuesday, Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election, renewed a promise to “impose Israeli sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea” and annex all Israeli settlements.
Macron also on Wednesday made a symbolic stop at one of France’s territories in the Holy Land – the Church of St. Anne, where the French tricolor has flown since the Ottomans gave it to Emperor Napoleon III in 1856 as thanks for his support in the Crimean War. It remains in French hands to this day through international treaties.
Before heading to the church, he walked through the Old City, speaking to shopkeepers and stopping by the Church of the Holy Sepulcre.
“Be it schools, hospitals, orphanages, or religious sites like this, we continue to defend French identity,” a French diplomatic source said.
“We are a step away here from Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, the very heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, so symbolically we are.”
A squabble broke out between Israeli police and French security officers when Israeli officers tried to enter St. Anne ahead of Macron’s visit. They were rebuffed by French officials who told them it was French property and a shouting match ensued.
An Israeli police spokesman said he was looking into the incident.
(Reporting by John Irish, additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; editing by Angus MacSwan)