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Lebanese president rules out direct Israel talks

PARIS (Reuters) - Lebanon’s president ruled out on Wednesday holding direct peace talks with Israel, saying that the best way to resolve his country’s differences with the Jewish state was to hold a regional peace conference instead.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) accompanies Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman as he leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris March 16, 2009. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Speaking at the end of a three-day visit to France, which has repeatedly said it hopes Lebanon will follow Syria in holding peace talks with Israel, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman stuck to his country’s stance on the issue.

“We have always refused to hold direct talks with the Israelis. We have always said that we would be prepared to accept a peace conference based on the Madrid conference and also on the international legal texts,” Suleiman told a news conference, referring to a 1991 peace conference in Madrid.

Suleiman said he had asked French President Nicolas Sarkozy to help resolve disputes with Israel such as obtaining a map of the land mines left by the Jewish state during its 2006 war with Hezbollah guerrillas, and obtaining Israel’s withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms area in accordance with U.N. resolutions.

“I also invited President Sarkozy to work toward a global approach for the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we have also called for that to happen in the framework of an international conference to which all the parties involved would be invited,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Syria and Israel announced last year that they were holding indirect peace talks under Turkish mediation, but the process has been suspended due to the Israeli general election last month, after which right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu was asked to form a government.

A senior adviser to Netanyahu said last week the prime minister-designate would likely shelve the peace talks with Syria given Damascus’s territorial demands and its alliance with Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

Sarkozy has forged closer ties with Syria in order to solve a political crisis in Lebanon and help broker peace in the Middle East. He has praised Syria for helping reach a political deal in Lebanon which led to Suleiman’s election in May.

Syria, which withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year presence, opened an embassy in Beirut last year under international pressure to establish normal diplomatic ties and treat its smaller neighbor as a fully sovereign country.

The two states had not had diplomatic relations since Britain and France carved them out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1920.

Damascus has not yet named an ambassador but Suleiman said the delay was due to purely administrative reasons.

“I know that the name will be announced soon,” he said.