Netanyahu in Paris for OECD boost ahead of US visit

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew in to Paris on Thursday to celebrate Israel's entry into the OECD group of rich economies and hold talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The visit to France came as the Israeli prime minister prepared for a key meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the faltering Middle East peace process.

In Paris, Netanyahu will crown a long campaign waged by Israel by formally accepting an invitation to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group of 31 developed nations.

Membership means Israel's status with foreign investment funds switches from that of an emerging economy to a developed one, opening up new sources of capital.

OECD member-states decided this month to invite Israel to join despite objections from Palestinians, who argued that letting Israel in would be a breach of the Paris-based group's commitment to human rights.

Netanyahu had hailed the decision as one of "strategic importance" and said it would bring Israel into "the club of the world's elite economies."

On the Middle East peace track, a significant diplomatic move came on Wednesday when White chief of staff Rahm Emanuel delivered an invitation to Netanyahu from Obama to come to the White House.

The working meeting Tuesday is to discuss "our shared security interests as well as our close cooperation in seeking peace between Israel and its neighbours," Emanuel said after talks with the Israeli leader in Jerusalem.

Israeli newspapers described the invitation as a sign that Obama is seeking to turn a new leaf in relations with the Likud leader that have been strained by a dispute over Jewish settlements.

Obama has also invited Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to visit in June in his latest bid to revive direct negotiations after an 18-month break.

Netanyahu will begin his visit to Paris with a working lunch at the Elysee Palace with Sarkozy at which the French leader is to discuss prospects for advancing the peace process.

In an interview to Le Figaro newspaper, the prime minister said he had "very friendly relations" with Sarkozy and played down reports that the French leader was increasingly frustrated with his refusal to halt Jewish settlements.

"Among friends and members of the same family, you can have occasional disagreements, but we remain fraternal," he was quoted as saying.

In France, many in Jewish intellectual circles increasingly see Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace rather than an engaged party.

An online petition dubbed the "European Jewish Call for Reason" or "JCall" has gathered more than 6,000 signatures, including prominent Jewish figures such as philosophers Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut.

"Israel faces existential threats," the group warns, criticising the Netanyahu government's "pursuit of settlements in the West Bank and in the Arab districts of East Jerusalem."

"These policies are morally and politically wrong and feed the unacceptable delegitimisation process that Israel currently faces abroad," it says.

Netanyahu will travel to Canada on Friday before heading to Washington.

© 2010 AFP

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