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French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech as he inaugurates the renovated spaces of the Richelieu National French Library "Bibliotheque Nationale de France" in Paris, France, January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

(reuters_tickers)

By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande sought to play down the prospects of Middle East peace talks in Paris on Sunday, saying only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians could resolve the long-standing conflict.

France has over the last year tried to breathe new life into the peace process, 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 organisations are due in Paris for a meeting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected as "futile".

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."

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, although a meeting with Hollande has yet to be confirmed.

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 favourable 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; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Janet Lawrence)

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