PARIS France fears that Israel no longer wants a Middle East peace deal, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Tuesday, and that Paris remained deeply opposed to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.
Later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has said he does not want to run for re-election in January.
The two leaders spoke on the phone ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Paris Wednesday.
While Sarkozy encouraged Abbas to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Kouchner made clear he was not expecting any swift breakthrough in the 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 on France Inter radio.
"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.
Netanyahu held unusually low-profile talks with U.S. President Barack Obama Monday.
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.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Sarkozy's office said he wanted Abbas to continue his work.
"The President of the Republic has encouraged Mr Abbas to continue serving the Palestinians and peace, and has assured him of France's active support to re-start the peace process on the basis agreed by the parties and the international community," his office said.
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 Tuesday that he would now visit the region "in the coming days" and said he would use the trip to try to persuade Abbas to run for re-election.
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.
Syria is seeking the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel wants a peace deal including diplomatic recognition by Syria and other political concessions.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Sophie Hardach; Editing by Louise Ireland)