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France plays down Paris Middle East peace talks prospects

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande sought on Thursday to play down prospects for Middle East peace talks this weekend in Paris, saying only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians could resolve the conflict.

France has tried to breathe new life into the peace process over the past year, holding a preliminary conference in June where the United Nations, European Union, United States and major Arab countries gathered to try to revive moribund talks.

Some 70 countries and organizations are due in Paris for a meeting on Sunday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected as "futile".

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Hollande, giving his last speech to the foreign diplomatic corps before stepping down in May, said the objective was to reaffirm the support of the international community for a two-state solution and ensure that it remained a reference.

"I can see that this has been weakened on the ground and in the minds. If we let it whither away then it would be a risk for Israeli's security to which we are resolutely attached.

"However, I am realistic on what this conference can achieve. Peace will only be done by the Israelis and Palestinians and by nobody else. Only bilateral negotiations can succeed," he said.

France, which had invited Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet Hollande to discuss the results of the conference, believes that with uncertainty surrounding how the next U.S. administration will handle the issue it is important to push the sides back to talks.

Abbas is due in Paris on Sunday but Netanyahu is not coming.

Hollande's office said the French and Palestinian leaders would meet in the coming weeks.

In Washington, the State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry felt "obliged" to attend the Paris conference to ensure it does not "impose a solution" - even as the Obama administration's term ends next week.

"We have an interest in advancing a two-state solution and we also have an interest in ensuring whatever happens in this conference is constructive and balanced," spokesman Mark Toner told a daily press news briefing.

"We don't want to see anything that attempts to impose a solution on Israel," he said.

Rex Tillerson, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, said on Wednesday the conflict could only be resolved between Israeli's and Palestinians, a position that the current administration agrees with.

"No one can be coerced into coming to the negotiating table. That will not lead to a solution," he told senators during his confirmation hearing.

NEED TO RESTATE POSITIONS

A draft communique for the meeting seen by Reuters calls on both sides to "restate their commitment to the two-state solution and to disavow official voices on their side that reject this solution".

It also asks the protagonists to "refrain from unilateral steps that prejudge the outcome of final status negotiations in order to rebuild trust and create a path back to meaningful direct negotiations".

Netanyahu said in public remarks on Thursday: "It's a rigged conference, rigged by the Palestinians with French auspices to adopt additional anti-Israel stances. This pushes peace backwards.

"It's not going to obligate us. It's a relic of the past, it's a last gasp of the past before the future sets in."

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has suggested he would be more favorable toward Israel than President Barack Obama, who said on Tuesday Netanyahu's policy backing settlements in occupied territory was making a future Palestinian state impossible.

Washington did not exercise its veto in December to stop a U.N. Security Council resolution that demands an end to Israeli settlement building.

(Addditional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Grant McCool)

 
 
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