PARIS - France fears that Israel no longer desires a Middle East peace deal, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Tuesday, adding that Paris remained deeply opposed to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held unusually low-profile talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday and is due to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday.
Speaking on France Inter radio, Kouchner made clear he was not expecting any swift break through in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
What really hurts me, and this shocks us, is that before there used to be a great peace movement in Israel. There was a left that made itself heard and a real desire for peace, Kouchner said.
It seems to me, and I hope that I am completely wrong, that this desire has completely vanished, as though people no longer believe in it, he added.
When Sarkozy took office in 2007 he worked hard to improve sometimes frosty French relations with Israel, believing Paris would never be a credible partner in Middle East peace talks if it was seen as biased in favour of the Arab world.
However, relations with the Netanyahu government have not been easy and France has been especially vocal in demanding that Israel halt Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.
Obama recently eased U.S. pressure on Israel over the settlements, calling for restraint in construction where he had earlier pushed for a freeze. But Kouchner signalled no such softening of French opposition.
There is a real difference of opinion on this (between Sarkozy and Netanyahu), he added.
Underlining their sometimes problematic ties, Kouchner belatedly cancelled a trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories last month. No official reason was given, but one French diplomat said Israel was making access to Gaza difficult.
Kouchner confirmed on Tuesday that he would now visit the region in the coming days and said he would use the trip to try to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to run for re-election in a ballot slated for January.
Abbas announced last week he would not seek a new mandate. France fears the younger generation of Palestinian politicians will be less committed to seeking a peace accord.
We must revisit this with Mahmoud Abbas, Kouchner said.
Two days after Netanyahu's visit, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will also be in Paris for talks with Sarkozy.
French officials have said the two meetings are not linked, seeking to kill off any speculation that France might try to act as middleman between the two nations.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Jon Boyle)