Israeli leaders have been widely expected to agree to the delay from 20 July to avoid a Jewish mourning period, but no decision has been announced officially.

"We are very close to the implementation of the disengagement plan," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in Nouakchott while on a visit to Mauritania.

"The implementation will start 15 August. It was postponed by three weeks because of the Jewish holiday," he said on Tuesday.

But a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem said: "Israel has spoken about an inclination to do that, but a final decision has not been made yet."

Army officers have previously spoken of carrying out the evacuation from all the Gaza settlements and four of 120 in the West Bank over three to four weeks.

Postponement

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested the postponement last month in what aides said was an effort to respect the mourning period and not aggravate religious settlers already furious over their impending evacuation from Gaza.

Mauritania, where Shalom was on a one-day visit, is one of only three Arab League members to have diplomatic relations with Israel. The others are Egypt and Jordan.

"Mauritania has a key role to play in the Middle East, and we count on these ties to improve things between us and the Arabs," Shalom told a news conference late on Tuesday during his visit to the desert state in northwest Africa.

 

Israel-Arab relations

 

Shalom added that Israel did not have any problems with Arab countries in the Gulf or in northern Africa, saying: "I don't see why one should not establish relations with these countries."

 

Shalom (L) says Israel has good
relations with Mauritania

Buoyed by a ceasefire with the Palestinians in February, Israel hopes to strengthen ties with the Arab world, and Shalom hopes to get 10 Arab states to establish diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv by the end of the year.

 

"We believe that the good relationship we have with Mauritania can be an example of the sort for relationship we could have with other North African and Gulf countries," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

 

Shalom earlier talked with President Maaouiya Sid'ahmed Taya and Prime Minister Sghair Ould M'Bareck, in the second visit by an Israeli foreign minister since diplomatic ties were established in 1999.

 

Then-foreign minister Shimon Peres visited Mauritania in October 2002.

 

Protests

 

Police used tear gas to disperse several protests, the latest on Tuesday outside the Palestinian mission in Nouakchott where about a hundred activists protested what they said was the infiltration of Zionism into mostly-Muslim Mauritania.

 

Mauritania has faced mounting criticism within its vast borders and beyond for maintaining relations in the wake of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, that erupted in 2000.