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Russia calls on countries to agree on Moscow Mideast talks date

MOSCOW, May 16 (RIA Novosti) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has urged countries set to take part in a Mideast peace conference in Moscow to agree on a timetable for the meeting as soon as possible.

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

"We will be able to set a timetable only when it will satisfy all the participants, primarily the Palestinians and Israelis," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow on Friday.

He said Russia is ready to host the conference in the nearest future, and has had the backing of the EU, the UN and the United States, but that Tel Aviv has preferred to postpone the forum.

Israel has repeatedly expressed doubts over the necessity of a Middle East peace conference in Moscow, citing a standing agreement between the Israeli and Palestinian sides to maintain strictly bilateral dialogue to protect them from unwanted outside interference.

"We will certainly not force anybody to act against their will, but we think that delaying this process is rather unreasonable," Lavrov said.

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 view 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.

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 so far made little tangible progress.

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