Sarkozy in Bethlehem for talks with Abbas

French President Nicholas Sarkozy made a stop- over in the West Bank city of Bethlehem Tuesday for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, wrapping up a three-day visit mainly to Israel marking 60 years since the state's foundation, reported dpa.

Sarkozy, accompanied by his wife Carla, received an official welcome in the southern West Bank city with an orchestra playing both the French and Palestinian national anthems.

He and Abbas are to sign a 21-million-euro agreement on the creation of French-sponsored industrial park in Bethlehem, expected to create 2,000 jobs for Palestinians in the area of the southern West Bank city.

The French presidential couple was also expected to tour the Church of the Nativity in the biblical city, believed to mark the spot where Jesus was born.

In sharp contrast to previous leaders who visited Israel in honour of its 60 anniversary, notably US President George W Bush in May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March, both of whom did not include the West Bank in their schedule, the French leader chose to meet with Abbas as well.

But he did not travel to Ramallah, where he would have faced the choice of whether to lay a wreath at the mausoleum of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Bush, during his first visit in January, met Abbas in Ramallah, but did not lay a wreath at the mausoleum of the Palestinian leader boycotted by the US.

Instead of the president, French Interior Minister Michele Alliot- Marie, however, did visit Ramallah Tuesday morning, where she laid a wreath at the mausoleum and was received by Presidential Secretary Tayeb Abdul Rahim.

Sarkozy, also met with Palestinian civil leaders at the French Consulate-General in East Jerusalem late Monday, including a Crhistian member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC),_ Bernard Sabella - the only PLC member from Jerusalem who is not from Hamas - as well as Abbas' advisor for Jerusalem affairs, Adnan Husseini.

On Monday afternoon, Sarkozy nevertheless made a highly supportive address to the Israeli Knesset (parliament), in which he said France would "always be at your side when you are threatened" and that anyone trying to destroy Israel will find France blocking the way.

But he also said that Israel's best guarantee for security was a viable Palestinian state, and called on Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and agree to divide Jerusalem.

As a "friend of the Palestinian people," he added however that their rights could not be restored without them accepting the rights of the Jewish people.

Sarkozy earlier Tuesday also held talks with Israeli Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, of the hardline Likud party, who has been leading in opinion polls at a time Israel seems to be heading for early elections. His wife, meanwhile, visited children hospitalized at Jerusalem's Hadassah-Ein Kerem hospital.

The glamorous couple were hosted for dinner Tuesday night by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told Sarkozy that his visit "demonstrates your deep sentiment of friendship for our nation, and will provide impetus to the peace process."

Peres expressed support for Sarkozy's effort to establish a union of Mediterranean states.

He also called on Arab leaders "to embark on direct negotiations with Israel."

They are welcome here, and are welcome to invite Israel's leaders to their respective countries. To Damascus, Beirut, Riyadh and all relevant capitals," he said.

Sarkozy and his wife Carla, who arrived Sunday evening, were scheduled to depart from Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport early Tuesday afternoon.

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