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Israel doubts need for Mideast conference in Moscow

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MOSCOW, May 15 (RIA Novosti) - Israel doubts the necessity of a Middle East peace conference in Moscow that has been scheduled for the summer of 2008, a deputy general director of the Israel Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.

Russia, a member of the quartet of Mideast mediators, has offered to host a conference in Moscow as a follow up to last November's U.S-sponsored meeting in Annapolis, Maryland.

"I personally am not at all sure that the conference in Moscow will go ahead," Aharon Leshno Yaar said in an interview with the Kommersant business daily.

"The main goal for the Israeli government now is to conduct bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian leadership," he said, adding that there was a standing agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian sides to keep the substance of negotiations secret so as to protect them against unwanted outside interference.

"At present, both sides are adhering to this agreement, and we are very grateful to our partners throughout the world for their readiness to respect the principle of confidentiality," the Israeli official said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin first voiced the idea of holding a Moscow Mideast peace conference in 2005, and received the backing of several Arab countries prior to the Annapolis talks.

The Israeli Ambassador to Russia said on Tuesday that Tel Aviv was skeptical that direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians would be possible during the proposed Moscow Mideast peace conference.

"We regard the past meeting in Annapolis and the future conference in Moscow as support for a Mideast settlement rather than a forum where we could hold negotiations with Palestinians," Anna Azari told a news conference in Moscow.

The diplomat said the date, format and agenda for the Moscow conference had not been determined yet.

Azari also said that the participation in the conference of the radical Islamist movement Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since June, would be detrimental to its success.

Israel and the Palestinian National Authority pledged in Annapolis last year to resume peace talks, draft a settlement plan by late 2008 and come to terms on the form of a future independent Palestinian state. However their talks have made little tangible progress so far amid the familiar tale of violence, atrocities, and mutual accusations.

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