Mandela bears message of peace in first visit to Israel

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JERUSALEM — Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South African President Nelson Mandela has agreed to be a political intermediary between Israel and its neighbors.

Mandela made the announcement in Israel during his first visit to the Jewish state Monday and Tuesday, after visiting Syria, Iran and Jordan.

While in Tehran, he spoke to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami regarding the plight of 13 Jews accused of spying for Israel and the United States.

Mandela conveyed Khatami's assurances to Israeli President Ezer Weizman that the 13 would be given a fair trial with "full legal representation."

Weizman and Mandela found themselves at odds over their assessments of another Mideastern neighbor.

"I state categorically," Mandela said of his talks in Damascus, that Syrian President Hafez Assad "is committed to peace in general and with Israel specifically…Syria is your neighbor. Take it from me, they're seeking a peaceful solution."

But Weizman noted that Israel has had "different feedback" from Syria lately.

"I've signalled to Assad more than 20, times but he has not looked my way," Weizman said. "At [Jordanian] King Hussein's funeral he was so close to me, but he would not look in my direction."

Mandela later traveled to the Gaza Strip, where he met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

A longtime supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Mandela told reporters that "Israel should withdraw from all the areas which it won from the Arabs in 1967, and in particular Israel should withdraw completely from the Golan Heights, from south Lebanon and from the West Bank."

At the same time, Mandela said that Israel is correct in asking for recognition from Arab nations.

"I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders," Mandela said after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.

On another note, Mandela expressed his "fascination" with development in Israel, saying the state could be an "economic powerhouse" in the Middle East.

A South African delegation including South Africa's chief rabbi, Israel's ambassador to South Africa and leaders of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies welcomed Mandela to Jerusalem, where a red carpet was laid outside the King David Hotel.

The former president hugged South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, a close personal friend, saying: "Now I feel at home — my rabbi is here."

At the conclusion of the lunch, Mandela said: "One of the reasons I am so pleased to be in Israel is as a tribute to the enormous contribution of the Jewish community of South Africa [to South Africa]. I am so proud of them."

Mandela also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, saying he was "deeply pained and enriched" by the experience. He emphasized how important it is that the world not forget the Holocaust.

It had taken five years for Mandela to accept the invitation to come here, and he made no bones about the reasons that had led him so many times to cancel planned visits.

Following his release from prison in 1990, Mandela said, "Almost every country in the world — except Israel" had invited him to visit.

Israel's invitation came only in 1994, but then the peace process did not make a visit politic. However, he now decided to show a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

"To the many people who have questioned why I came, I say: Israel worked very closely with the apartheid regime. I say: I've made peace with many men who slaughtered our people like animals. Israel cooperated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate in any atrocities," he said.

After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Monday, Mandela described him as "a man of courage and vision.

"The people of the world and Israel should support Barak — he has aroused our hopes," he said.