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Israel's Netanyahu says still opposed to French-led peace talks

Israel's prime minister has taken a jab at a Paris initiative to restart Mideast peace talks. Netanyahu also questioned France's impartiality over its support of an UNESCO resolution.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed his country's opposition to an international conference on reviving Middle East peace talks, which was set to take place this autumn in Paris.

The comments were made on Sunday during a visit from French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who hoped to change the Israeli leader's mind.

"I told him the only way to advance genuine peace between us and the Palestinians is through direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions," Netanyahu told his cabinet after meeting with the French foreign minister.

He noted that anything other than bilateral negotiations gives the Palestinians an "escape hatch" to avoid recognizing Israel as the "nation state of the Jewish people."

Ayrault also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank on Sunday to discuss the upcoming Paris conference.

"It is very clear to us, and I said this today to both the prime minister and to President Abbas, that we cannot take the place of the two parties," the foreign minister told reporters. "Only they can conduct direct negotiations to achieve a solution."

However, Ayrault defended the international gathering since the situation between the two countries is "currently stuck." He added that "external intervention is necessary to provide renewed momentum."

Doubting French 'impartiality'

Netanyahu also slammed France on Sunday for its support over a UNESCO resolution on the flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The resolution did not mention that the site is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and is the most sacred site in Judaism.

The prime minister said the France-approved resolution, "casts a shadow over the impartiality of the entire forum France is trying to convene."

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Sources close to Ayrault said the French "regretted" the UNESCO resolution and reportedly said that it should have been avoided.

However, in light of the accusations of partiality, Ayrault rejected Netanyahu's comments, saying: "France has no vested interest, but is deeply convinced that if we don't want to let the ideas of the Islamic State group prosper in this region, we must do something."

A meeting is tentatively set to take place on May 30 in Paris to prep for the peace talk conference. Participants include the Middle East Quartet of Russia, the European Union, the United States and the United Nations, the Arab League, the UN Security Council as well as around 20 countries. Israel and Palestine are currently not attending.

The goal of the meeting is to bundle economic incentives and guarantees that countries have previously offered to set an agenda for the French-proposed peace conference this fall.

Palestinians welcomed the proposal and although Israel has voiced their objections to the French initiative, they have not said they will boycott it this fall.

rs/sms (AP, AFP, dpa)

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