Mbeki welcomes Israeli Likud

Pretoria - President Thabo Mbeki on Tuesday welcomed members of Israel's governing Likud Party as "friends" with whom South Africa wants to work closely as he opened two days of talks in Pretoria.

The visit by the eight-member delegation from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's party marked the first time that the Likud Party was holding official talks with South Africa on efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.

"We welcome you here as friends - as people with whom we would want to work as closely as we can," said Mbeki at the start of the meeting in the presidential guest house.

"In finding a solution to the conflict I hope when we interact among ourselves we can get somewhere," he said.

SA wants to help

Mbeki's administration has been a vocal critic of Israel, harshly criticising its construction of a barrier on the West Bank that the Palestinians have decried as a land grab.

South Africa earlier this year supported the Palestinian case challenging the legality of the barrier before the International Court of Justice, which ruled that part of the wall should be torn down.

"We are very concerned about the Middle East and very interested in peace. Peace for the Israelis and peace for the Palestinians," said Mbeki.

"If we can contribute something, however small, to end this conflict we will be very honoured to do so," he said.

Israeli Deputy Trade and Industry Minister David Ratzon, who led the delegation, said he was ready to discuss a broad range of issues concerning Israel and the Middle East conflict.

"It is a pleasure, privilege and honour to be the first official Likud delegation invited to South Africa," said Ratzon.

"We intend raising a few subjects, namely the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish nation, the Likud Party and the Israeli political map, conflict between Israelis and Arabs, the historical and political view from Israel, Likud's place in the political process and Israel's relationship with Africa and South Africa past and present."

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