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Mauritanian President Calls for Debate on Ties to Israel

The newly-elected president of Mauritania, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, says he wants an open debate about the Islamic country's almost decade-old diplomatic ties with Israel. Mauritania is one of few countries with such ties that belong to the Arab League, an organization of about 20 mostly Arabic states. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West African Bureau in Dakar.

Of almost 20 candidates in the recent presidential election, Mr. Abdallahi was the most moderate in his views on Israel. Whereas others said they wanted to break ties, the winning candidate said he would turn the issue over to the population, to help decide.

Former President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1999.

It is widely seen in this Arab-populated West African country that the Taya-brokered relationship with Israel was a way to appease the United States, following the 1990's Persian Gulf War.

Mauritanian leaders supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, during his invasion of neighboring oil-rich Kuwait in 1991.

"In order to avoid being blamed by the United States, it was strategic for him [former President Taya] to establish the diplomatic relationship," Moustapha Toure says.

Moustapha Toure is spokesman of the Association of Mauritanian Refugees in Senegal. He is one of thousands of black Mauritanians pushed out in the early 1990's, when ethnic and regional tensions flared.

Hundreds died fleeing the violence.

For Toure, the real issue that requires open debate is national reconciliation, in a country long divided by color and ethnicity.

"They [Taya administration] wanted to hide what they [had] done against the black people in Mauritania between 1989 and 1992," Toure says. The real problem for us is to build our national unity."

Human rights lawyer Mohamed Ould Yarba says the Mauritanian government has used its relationship with Israel to appease the World Bank, when the country has had money problems.

Although the World Bank is an international lending institution, it is often seen as controlled by Americans.

Its presidents are citizens of the largest shareholder country -- the United States.

He says Mauritanians have the impression that, each time the government needed to hide how weak the economy was, it would make a deal with powerful countries, to hide unflattering economic data from the World Bank.

As of last June, the World Bank has pledged more than one billion dollars of assistance to Mauritania for what it says are much-needed poverty-reduction programs.

Yarba says he wants President Abdallahi to make sure any continued ties with Israel are based on real diplomacy and peace politics and not what he calls cover-up attempts.

Israel-based analyst Meir Javedanfar says the outcome of a public debate is not the final word on Mauritanian-Israeli relations.

"This is something that could change in the future, should relations between Israelis and the Palestinian authority improve," Javedanfar says.

President Abdallahi has said his decision on Israel will depend, in part, on the outcome of talks between the leaders of Israel and Palestine on the issue of land for Palestinians.