Paris: French President Nicolas Sarkozy put his reputation as a stalwart friend of Israel on the line, 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 US 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 UN 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 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 UN's cultural arm, acknowledging that some in the crowd yesterday 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.