Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, a leading candidate to head UNESCO despite his vehement anti-Israeli rhetoric, has apologized for a number of his contentious statements claiming that they counter his own beliefs and devotion to culture.

Hosni, who has served as Egypt's culture minister since 1987, has declared that if he could, he "would burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries."

"Let's burn these books; if there are any, I will burn them myself before you," Hosni was quoted as telling a member of parliament who had confronted him about the presence of Israeli books in Egyptian libraries last May.

Hosni told media at the time he had meant the comments as "hyperbole

Despite such rhetoric, Hosni is a leading candidate for the top spot in the UN's education and cultural organization, having been recommended by Mubarak.

Hosni told Le Monde in remarks published on Wednesday that he regretted his comments and said they had given his opponents a chance to associate him with everything he finds deplorable - racism, nullification of others, as well as the defacement of different cultures.

"Nothing is more distant to me than racism, the negation of others or the desire to hurt Jewish culture or any other culture," he wrote.

The minister also asked his critics to view his comments within the broader perspective of his life, which he said was devoted to the promoting of cultural dialogue.

Hosni also mentioned the personal attacks he had suffered at the hands of Egypt's fundamentalist circles.

The minister nevertheless said that it would be impossible to declare normal relations between the Arab world and Israel until peace was achieved in the entire Middle East.

Israel earlier this months agreed to lift its objection to the appointment of Hosni as head of UNESCO, following a recent meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

As part of a secret agreement, reached during their May 11 meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Netanyahu promised Mubarak that Israel would cease the international campaign it has waged against Hosni's appointment during the past year.

It is still unclear whether Netanyahu, who is known for his insistence on the principle of quid pro quo in Israel's relations with the Arab world, received something from the Egyptian leader in return.

Exact details of the "arrangement" between Netanyahu and Mubarak were kept secret and were not reported to the media, even though such practice would constitute a radical change of Israeli policy.

However, a senior source in the Prime Minister's Office confirmed the development, but insisted the decision was made following a personal request by Egypt's president and several European leaders.

Moreover, the source said Israel's gesture was part of a broader set of understandings, in which Egypt will respond in similar fashion at a future gesture. "We received a substantive and worthwhile return. We would not have done this unless Israel's interests benefited," the source said.

Netanyahu's promise to lift Israel's objections contradicts the position of the Foreign Ministry. The instructions from the Prime Minister's Bureau caught Foreign Ministry officials by surprise; the ministry subsequently circulated a telegram on the new directive to several Israeli delegations abroad who had until then been waging a public and diplomatic campaign against Hosny's appointment to UNESCO.