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South Africa Hosts Palestinian, Israeli Delegates


South African President Thabo Mbeki is hosting delegates from the Palestinian authority and the Israeli government. The talks are aimed at sharing South Africa's experience in ending apartheid and ushering in its own democracy.

President Thabo Mbeki is leading what he has called a "retreat" for senior Palestinians and Israelis.

The six-member delegations are led by Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat and the speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Avraham Burg. Speaker Burg is joined in leading his delegation by former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin. The three favor dialogue as the means to deal with the Middle East conflict and have continued to talk ever since the current intifada began 15 months ago. Observers say they continue to try and demonstrate that voices of moderation can still be heard in the Middle East.

The South African authorities insist that the three day talks being held amid tight security at the remote Spier wine estate are not a fresh peace initiative but are aimed at bolstering the stalled peace efforts in the Middle East. Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad says South Africa wants to share with the Middle East delegates its own experiences in avoiding a bloody civil war and shepherding this country to democracy.

To do so, South African President Mbeki has gathered together some of the key negotiators and strategists who were instrumental in producing the agreement which led to the end of apartheid and to South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994. They include Parliament Speaker Frene Ginwala and the chief negotiator of the then-ruling National Party, Roelf Meyer.

In 1997, South Africa hosted some of the senior protagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict at a similar retreat at Arniston in the Cape.

That retreat was notable only for the refusal of the pro-British loyalist delegates to meet face to face with Republican delegates and for the racial slur directed at senior ANC official Cyril Ramaphosa by a loyalist delegate. But the ruling African National Congress continued to work closely with Sinn Fein, in particular its president Gerry Adams. Last October, Gerry Adams sought the counsel of elder statesman Nelson Mandela and other leading ANC officials shortly before he called on his partners in the Irish Republican Army to put the group's weapons beyond use.

The African National Congress has also used its so-called liberation struggle credentials in other arenas. In 1999, Mr. Mandela was instrumental in persuading Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi to accept a compromise proposal that brought to trial the Libyan suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

South African officials have imposed a media clampdown on the current talks at Spier. But privately they say they hope that the distance from the conflict and protection from probing questions will create some space for the Middle East delegates to think afresh on their region's problems.

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