PARIS (AP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy put his reputation as a stalwart friend of Israel on the line Wednesday, warning that military action was no way to deal with nuclear-minded Iran at a dinner hosted by France's main Jewish group — and his likely presidential election rival in the audience.
In the wake of new U.S. concerns that Israel might strike Iran's nuclear facilities this spring, Sarkozy reiterated his ironclad commitment to Israel's security but emphasized "the solution is never military."
"The solution is political, the solution is diplomatic, the solution is in sanctions," Sarkozy said, referring to a string of U.N. sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, which the West fears mask designs to build weapons.
"We want the leaders of this country to understand that they have crossed a red line, and to reassure Israeli leaders so that the irreparable is not carried out," Sarkozy said of possible military action.
Tehran, whose Islamist leaders have called for Israel's destruction, insists its nuclear program is peaceful and aimed at generating electricity and civilian-sector projects.
Sarkozy said Israel needs a peaceful Palestinian state as its neighbor, and pointed to France's historic rivalry with Germany — turned into a crucial European alliance today — as a possible model for Palestinians and Israelis.
"France says: 'Israeli people — perhaps more than another people — you can understand the need for the Palestinians to hope,'" said Sarkozy, adding that he wanted to see Israel one day "be loved, and not just feared."
Sarkozy said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has had a fraught relationship at times, was known for "firmness ... someone who is firm must be open, because he doesn't have to prove his firmness, and his strength."
The French leader also defended his decision to support Palestine's membership in Paris-based UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural arm, acknowledging that some in the crowd Wednesday were troubled by that.
"If I did it, it's exactly because my entire history has been to be close to Israel," he said.
Sarkozy's comments came amid high-stakes French political drama as France's best-known Jewish organization, CRIF, hosted the president and his most likely challenger in this spring's election: Socialist Francois Hollande.
The dinner that has become a must on France's political calendar in recent years offered a rare glimpse of the two longtime rivals together in public and in a social setting with their often-testy political families.
Hollande didn't miss the chance to make his presence known even if the president got to make an address — and he did not. After Sarkozy's speech, he got up from his table, crossed the ballroom and greeted the president — shaking hands with him and others at a vast table reserved for the Cabinet.
They men bantered and joked as journalists' cameras flashed.
Afterward, Hollande told The Associated Press he had said simply "Bonjour" to the president. Sarkozy, also asked by the AP to recount their encounter, did not answer — and responded only with a smile and shrug.
Richard Prasquier, the CRIF president, told French TV that the on-camera handshake was a boon for his group, suggesting it had showcased the dinner as a premium appointment in French politics.
For weeks, polls have indicated Sarkozy would lose by a double-digit percentage point gap if the presidential election were held today. Political tensions have flared and party loyalties grown increasingly venomous of late.
Sarkozy helped make the CRIF event the near-obligatory annual social stop for politicians of the two mainstream parties — Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, and Hollande's Socialists. Sarkozy was the first serving head of state to attend, in 2008. Hollande noted he too has attended for years.
"I don't know who will make the address in 2013," Hollande quipped.
Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.