On the eve of his first state visit to Israel beginning Monday, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic offered warm words of praise for the Jewish state, saying in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, “We have a lot to learn from Israel – not only how to love one’s country, but how to create earth out of sand, how to develop hi-tech, how to feed your people.”

In the interview, the full text of which will appear in this Friday’s Jerusalem Post Magazine, Nikolic also stated that he believes Iran will press forward with efforts to develop its nuclear program despite Western attempts to halt it.

“Iran will continue with their program. I don’t see the wish there to stop with their program even when they are being advised to do so by their friends,” he said.

Nikolic, who was elected to a five-year term of office in May 2012, after defeating incumbent Boris Tadic, insisted that Serbia will not recognize the declaration of independence by the breakaway province of Kosovo, despite the “terrible pressure” that his country faces.

He also highlighted the “many historical parallels between Serbians and Jewish people,” noting that both had seen their historical homelands come under foreign occupation and been subjected to expulsions and persecution.

“You have a saying, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ For some of our people, it is ‘Next year in Kosovo,’” he said.

The interview was conducted on Thursday at the presidential compound in Belgrade.

Nicolic will hosted on Monday by President Shimon Peres for a reception and a state luncheon.

Later in the day, Peres is due to leave for Rome for meetings with Pope Francis, the president of Italy, leading political and business figures and representatives of the Jewish community.

Nikolic is on an official three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In addition to his meeting with Peres, Nikolic, a former farright politician, is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.

Nikolic caused great controversy in June 2012 when, in the course of an interview on Montenegrin television, he refused to acknowledge the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995 as genocide, stating that he would not attend the annual commemoration of the massacre, just because his predecessor had done so. In 2007, the UN International Court of Justice ruled that the killings in Srebrenica were nothing less than genocide, a decision that has been repeatedly argued against by Nikolic.

Some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were savagely killed by Serbian forces during the most devastating period of the Bosnian War, when Bosnian Serbs entered an area that had been designated as a UN protectorate, killing men and boys and deporting women, children and the elderly, after first raping many of the women.

In the interview, Nikolic stated that serious war crimes had been committed by some Serbs, who he said should be found, prosecuted and punished, but he was nonetheless adamant that the slaughter could not be defined as genocide.

There was considerable negative reaction to his statements, which were condemned by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the US State Department and leading figures in Bosnia Herzegovina, who termed them as counterproductive obstacles toward reconciliation and an insult to survivors of the massacre.

In the 10 months that have passed since then, Nikolic has had time to reconsider his insensitivity, and on April 25, in the trailer of another interview scheduled to be aired on Bosnian National Television on May 7, while still refraining from defining the massacre as genocide, he apologized for the atrocities, saying: “I kneel and ask for forgiveness for Serbia for the crime committed in Srebrenica.”

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