PARIS -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said following talks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Israel and the Palestinians have never been so close to a peace deal.
Olmert told reporters that problems still had to be overcome and said it was time for both sides to make tough decisions.
"It seems to me that we have never been as close to the possibility of reaching an accord as we are today," he told a news conference standing alongside Abbas and Sarkozy.
"It seems that we have reached the time when the Palestinian authorities and the Israelis have to take serious and important decisions that will finally take us to where we have never been before," Olmert added, without giving further details.
Olmert and Abbas launched U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations last year with the stated aim of achieving an agreement before President George W. Bush steps down next January. But progress has been stymied by violence and mutual recrimination.
Sarkozy, whose country assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1, visited Israel and the occupied West Bank last month as part of efforts to facilitate the negotiations.
"The Israelis want peace, the Palestinians want peace. The role of Europe and France is to help peace," Sarkozy said.
Abbas welcomed the French intercession and voiced hope "that we can arrive at peace within a number of months".
Speaking through an interpreter, he told the news conference: "We have started detailed negotiations with Mr Olmert.... We are totally serious. Both of us are serious."
Sarkozy invited Olmert and Abbas to Paris to take part in a summit of European Union and Mediterranean countries that was to kick off later on July 13.
Also attending is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been holding indirect, Turkish-mediated peace talks with Israel.
Olmert said he would like to see direct engagement with the Syrians but that this would not be at the cost of the Palestinian track, "which is of utmost importance to us."
He also said he wanted to work with Europe and the United States "to avoid the biggest danger" to Israel, namely Iran's nuclear ambitions. Western countries and Israel, which is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, suspect Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies.
The Israeli prime minister's visit to France has been overshadowed by allegations back home of fraud over his travel expenses. He has denied wrongdoing.
Israel radio broke away from live coverage of Olmert's comments in Paris to interview a legislator from his main coalition partner about the latest suspicions.
While the scandal brews, Olmert has been stressing his efforts to make peace with Israel's many enemies and showing that he remains fully focused on the various talks.
Israeli and Western officials say the most progress with the Palestinians has been made on the issue of borders and that any accord was unlikely to address in any detail either the fate of Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees.
According to Palestinian and Western officials, Olmert has offered to return some 92.7 percent of the West Bank, plus 100 percent of the Gaza Strip. In addition, Olmert has proposed a 5.3 percent land swap for major settlement blocs.
Abbas has demanded the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He has raised the possibility of amending the pre-1967 lines and may accept a 1.5-2 percent land swap.