PRETORIA - South Africa on Friday defended its warming of relations with Israel, criticized by pro-Palestinian groups, and said it would play an even hand in its attempt to help find a solution to the Middle East conflict.

President Thabo Mbeki met Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Pretoria on Friday behind closed doors as part of a series of meetings by Mbeki's black-led government with factions in the Palestinian conflict.

South Africa says it hopes to use its experience in negotiating the end of white rule to help bring peace in Israel, but has also been a vocal critic of Israel's security polices.

"It's not a question of warming up of relations, it's a continuation, so that we can extend out contacts with factions of the Israeli society," Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad said after Mbeki and Olmert posed for photographers.

"We are not mediators, we want to use our own experience to help them," he told a news conference. "We will criticize actions, for instance of Israeli defense forces occupying territories and at the same time criticize actions of the Palestinian groups, such as suicide bombing."

He said South Africa wanted to see a legitimate Palestinian state living side by side with Israel behind secure borders.

Pahad said talks to discuss broad issues covering peace in the Middle East would continue later in the day.

South Africa's willingness to talk to the Israeli government, and its position as Israel's largest trading partner in Africa, has angered some pro-Palestinian activists drawn mainly from its economically influential Muslim minority.

The Palestinian Solidarity Group this week accused Pretoria of "squandering the moral high ground" by forging links with Israel, while other activists accused South Africa of purposely keeping Olmert's visit a hush-hush affair to limit protests.

Olmert, who also heads the trade and industry ministries, is the first top Israeli official to visit South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. He has hailed what he said was a new era of stronger ties with South Africa during his trip, and signed an investment protection agreement with his counterpart.

Trade between the nations stands at about $500 million per year, and officials say it could double in coming years.

South Africa, which hosted talks last month with members of the Likud party to try to revive negotiations to end the Middle East conflict, has slammed Israel for building a wall in the West Bank, which Israel says is to keep out suicide bombers but Palestinians call a land grab.