JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to Nelson Mandela on Friday as a champion of peace despite his tireless advocacy of the Palestinian cause.
Mr Peres said the South Africa liberation leader was "above all a builder of bridges of peace and dialogue who paid a heavy personal price for his struggle in the years he spent in prison and fighting for his people."
"Nelson Mandela was a fighter for human rights who left an indelible mark on the struggle against racism and discrimination," Mr Peres said.
Both men won the Nobel Peace Prize - Mandela in 1993 and Mr Peres the following year alongside the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Mr Netanyahu paid tribute to Mandela as "a man of vision and a freedom fighter who disavowed violence".
"He set a personal example for his country during the long years in which he was imprisoned. He was never haughty. He worked to heal rifts within South African society and succeeded in preventing outbreaks of racial hatred," the Israeli premier said.
Despite his pacifist instincts, Mandela never renounced violence in the struggle against apartheid and his African National Congress had an active military wing during his long incarceration.
Since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, South Africa has been an outspoken critic of Israel, although it maintains diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.
Mandela, who first visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 1999, was an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause but also a firm believer that Israelis would ultimately take the path of peace.
"In my experience I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice," Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography.
South African Jews played a prominent role in the struggle against apartheid, among them late communist leader Joe Slovo, who headed the ANC's military wing.