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Mandela Regrets Offending Jews, Says He is Ready to Visit Israel

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Nelson Mandela told a group of American Jewish leaders here Sunday that he was sorry if any of his past statements on Israel had offended Jews.

In what was described by participants as a “warm, friendly and cordial meeting,” the South African black leader also said he hoped to visit Israel soon and looked forward to good relations between it and the new democratic state that emerges in South Africa.

The Jewish delegation expressed its commitment to continue the battle against apartheid and racism in South Africa and extended a warm welcome for Mandela’s forthcoming visit to the United States.

“It was an historic event in the common struggle of Jews and blacks against racism and anti-Semitism,” said Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, who coordinated the meeting.

Siegman and five other American Jewish leaders met for close to three hours Sunday morning with the long-imprisoned African National Congress leader.

The meeting was the culmination of diplomatic efforts by national Jewish groups and the New York Jewish community aimed at getting Mandela to clarify his views on Israel before his scheduled arrival in the United States on June 20.

The African National Congress leader has on a number of occasions equated the nationalist struggle of black South Africans with the Palestinian struggle. He has been photographed at least twice embracing Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat.

American Jewish leaders were concerned that Jewish protest against such statement during Mandela’s visit to the United States could break open old wounds between Jews and blacks, who plan to give Mandela a hero’s welcome.

ACCEPTS ISRAEL’S RIGHT TO EXIST

The Jewish leaders attending the meeting, besides Siegman, were Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress; Herbert Wander, chairman of the National Jewish Community Advisory Council’s committee on apartheid; Maynard Wishner, past president of the American Jewish Committee; Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; and Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

According to Siegman, the South African leader said that the ANC accepts unequivocally Israel’s de facto right to exist and its legal right to exist within the pre-1967 borders.

Mandela expressed his gratitude to Jews in South Africa who have been among the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement. He also spoke of his respect for some Israeli leaders, including Golda Meir, who was always outspoken in her opposition to apartheid, and Menachem Begin, whose book “Revolt” he said was used like a textbook by the ANC during its early years.

The anti-apartheid leader expressed regret if statements he made in Cairo and Lusaka, Zambia, regarding Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi led to any misunderstandings in the Jewish community.

Foxman said Mandela expressed his wish to visit Israel and hoped he would soon receive an official invitation.

“Our meeting was an opportunity to straighten out some misconceptions,” Foxman said in a statement late Sunday. “I am convinced that Mr. Mandela — after forthright discussions on these subjects — understands our concerns, and his sincere apologies for past statements were warmly welcomed.”

STATEMENTS HAILED IN NEW YORK

In New York, reports of Mandela’s statements Sunday were hailed by the local Jewish Community Relations Council, which said it would join in welcoming the ANC leader to the city.

“I think this very much takes the air out of the sails of the protest movement,” Michael Miller, executive director of the JCRC, said, referring to those who had planned either to stage demonstrations or boycott the local celebration that is to be thrown upon Mandela’s arrival.

“We are pleased that he (Mandela) has spoken positively about Israel and looks forward to good relations between the State of Israel and non-racist South Africa,” Kenneth Bialkin, president of the New York JCRC, said in a statement.

But Miller warned that the success of the Geneva meeting should not be exaggerated. “As much as the outcome of the meeting was very positive, this is one step in a series of discussions with Mr. Mandela on a broad range of issues of mutual concern,” he said.

The JCRC is hoping to set up further dialogue with Mandela while he is in New York.

(JTA staff writer Elena Neuman in New York contributed to this report.)

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