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Likud Delegation in South Africa for Talks - 2004-09-07


A delegation from Israel's ruling Likud party is in South Africa for talks aimed at boosting the Middle East peace process. The South Africans hope to share their experiences from their transition to democracy 10 years ago.

South African officials say the point of the Pretoria meeting is to share South Africa's experience with members of Israel's governing party.

It has been 10 years since the peaceful, negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy. The South Africans are hoping that they can offer a few lessons, or at least ideas, from their past to aid the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. But they are careful to say they are not prescribing any solutions.

The South African delegation includes people who were on both sides of the protracted negotiations leading to the downfall of the apartheid state. Ex-foreign minister Pik Botha is taking part, and so is Roelf Meyer, who led the apartheid government's negotiating team.

They are meeting with an eight-member delegation from Likud, led by Israeli Deputy Trade and Industry Minister David Ratzon, who said the group is ready to discuss a wide variety of issues relating to Israel, the Middle East conflict, and Africa.

President Thabo Mbeki welcomed the Likud delegates as "friends" at the start of the two-day meeting.

His spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, told VOA that for decades the world focused its attention on three seemingly intractable situations - in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the Middle East.

"The issue of Northern Ireland is being addressed," said Mr. Khumalo. "The issue of South Africa has been resolved. And the outstanding question on the serious scale remains the Middle East one, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli situation. And what South Africa can do in a humble way is to make a contribution to that search for peace. But we are not attempting to broker any solution, we are not mediators. We are not peacemakers. What we are doing is we are sharing our own experiences with the leaders of the Likud party."

This is the first time the Likud party has held official talks with South Africa. Although Pretoria retains cordial relations with Israel, the ruling African National Congress has longstanding ties with the Palestinians.

The South African government routinely criticizes Israeli actions. Pretoria has been especially vocal in condemning Israel's construction of the West Bank security barrier. It supported the Palestinians' challenge to the barrier earlier this year in the International Court of Justice, which ruled that part of it should be torn down.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is highly sensitive in South Africa, which has influential Jewish and Muslim communities. The Middle East peace process is often debated on radio talk shows with more passion than local issues.

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