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Israel Rejects Role for Mandela

November 29, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Monday brushed aside suggestions that Nelson Mandela broker Middle East peace talks, saying he preferred U.S. mediation.

The former South African president returned from his first visit to Israel last month saying he wanted to act as mediator between Israelis and Arabs. Israel Radio on Monday said Mandela wanted to restart peace negotiations between Israel and Syria by setting up a meeting between Barak and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Barak said he preferred the United States, Israel’s traditional ally, which has been mediating between Israel and Syria.

``I would be happy to meet with Syrian President Assad,″ Barak told reporters during a visit to Israel’s parliament. But, he added, ``it appears to me that the one who is best equipped today to bring about such a meeting ... is the Americans.″

Mandela’s office in Johannesburg did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Attempts to restart talks between Israel and Syria, which broke down in 1996, have faltered in the face of a Syrian precondition that Israel first agree to return the strategic Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967. Israel refuses preconditions to the negotiations.

Mandela visited Israel last month, a gesture of reconciliation to the nation that supported South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Nobel peace laureate also visited his longtime friend, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom he has defended in his quest for statehood.

Israel has been suspicious of Mandela’s alliances with the Arab world.

During his visit last month, Mandela said peace would remain hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Mandela’s presence may not be accepted for peace negotiations.

``What Mandela said while he was here did not make the people who are dealing with the peace process happy,″ Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron said. ``I’m not sure that he’s the person who should be handed a mission like that.″

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