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  Mauritania, Israel Form Ties

By Barry Schweid
AP Diplomatic Writer
Thursday, Oct. 28, 1999; 12:59 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON –– Declaring it wants to improve chances for peace, Mauritania today became the third Arab country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel and defended the action against Arab criticism.

"It is a sovereign decision, taken by us as a sovereign state," Mauritania's foreign minister, Ahmed Ould sid Ahmed, said after exchanging documents with David Levy, the Israeli foreign minister, at a State Department ceremony. "We hope that this decision will foster efforts to arrive at a solution."

An Arab League member, Mauritania, which is in North Africa, far from Israel, is now the third Arab country to have full relations with the Jewish state. Egypt broke ranks in 1979 and was ostracized for making peace with Israel. Jordan took the step in 1994.

Ahmed and Levy shook hands as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has urged Arab countries to support peacemaking, beamed her approval. "We think it is better that Israel not be isolated."

She urged other Arab countries to follow Mauritania's lead. Privately, U.S. officials said the United States also was urging European governments to take Israel into their regional group at the United Nations.

This would enable Israel to take a seat on the Security Council on a rotating basis with other nations and participate in some other U.N. sessions that the Arabs have blocked.

Ahmed, at a news conference, said his government had not decided whether its embassy would be placed in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. The decision could be significant.

Of the countries that have relations with Israel only Costa Rica and El Salvador have embassies in Jerusalem. President Clinton has blocked a shift of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, which would have bolstered Israel in its determination to keep the city as its eternal and undivided capital.

Levy hugged Albright. "What Mauritania does today is very wise and courageous," he said, while also offering assurance Israel was seeking a settlement with the Arabs.

Albright concurred. "We are seeing now that the Israeli government wants to move forward in getting a comprehensive peace," she said.

In Cairo, the Arab League's secretary-general, Ismat Abdel el-Maguid, said of Mauritania's action: "It is a step that came at an inappropriate time."

Albright and Levy are also expected to discuss the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and whether Israel and Syria are any closer to holding their own talks.

Clinton plans to confer Monday in Oslo with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while they are in the Norwegian capital to commemorate the 1993 Oslo agreement that led to the negotiations.

The Clinton administration claimed there was a breakdown in trust while Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel's prime minister, causing Arab governments to hold off relations with the Jewish state. By contrast, administration officials praise Barak as an Israeli leader determined to improve the atmosphere.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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