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By Souhail Karam
RIYADH (Reuters) - Reviving Middle East peace talks is an absolute priority and the present stalemate only serves extremists, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in remarks published on Tuesday before a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Sarkozy was due to meet Saudi King Abdullah on Tuesday, hoping to assuage Arab leaders' fears over Washington softening its stance on Israeli settlements.
The French president will also discuss Saudi plans for a civilian nuclear energy programme -- still in the early planning stages -- as well as possible purchases of military equipment by the Saudi National Guard.
"King Abdullah ... is a man of peace and moderation," Sarkozy said in an interview on the website of Al-Riyadh daily before his 24-hour private visit.
"The absolute priority lies in relaunching the peace process as soon as possible. There is a pressing need for it. The current stalemate serves the interest of the extremists."
Frustrated with the stalled peace process, the Western-backed Palestinian leadership plans to seek U.N. Security Council support for establishing an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Palestinians have expressed outrage after U.S. President Barack Obama's administration softened demands for Israel to curb settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians say is destroying their hopes for a viable state.
The change in U.S. tone has embarrassed leaders of key Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose citizens see little to show for warm government ties with Washington and U.S.-friendly foreign policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Sarkozy, who met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, did not say what message he would have for King Abdullah on the issue of settlements.
"Relaunching the (peace) talks will not be possible without strong initiatives, specifically on the settlements issue ... The dead end we are faced with today causes great concern."
King Abdullah floated in 2002 a peace proposal that gives Israel recognition from all Arab states if it returns all land occupied in 1967 and negotiates a solution to the Palestinian refugee question.
Al-Riyadh said in an editorial Europe risks compromising its regional influence if it leaves the Israeli-Palestinian issue under the aegis of Washington while Israel expands settlements.
Sarkozy will not be accompanied by any representative of French firms and Saudi officials do not expect any commercial transaction to be closed during the visit.
"Military equipment needs are discussed during every visit to identify the needs," a government official said on condition of anonymity.
(Reporting by Souhail Karam; Editing by Charles Dick)

Reuters