Both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu thanked Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli Tuesday for his country’s stalwart support of Israel, manifest in its vote last week alongside Israel and against a UN General Assembly resolution designed to keep the Goldstone Commission report on the international agenda.
Panama was one of only six countries that voted with Israel, the others being Canada, Micronesia, Nauru, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the US. The resolution passed by a vote of 98 in favor to 7 against, with 31 abstentions.
Panama will always stand with Israel, in appreciation of “its guardianship of the capital of the world – Jerusalem,” Martinelli told Peres at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday.
Panama is a small country (population 3,400,000), “but it has a big heart for Israel,” said Martinelli, who is on a working trip to Qatar and Israel.
About 8,000 Panamanian citizens are Jews, and three of the ministers in Martinelli’s cabinet are Jewish, as are many senior government officials.
The Jewish community is fully integrated and has made a tremendous contribution to Panama’s cultural and economic life, Martinelli said.
In office since July, Martinelli heads the Democratic Change Party. His campaign platform was based on eliminating political corruption and reducing violent crime.
Martinelli was accompanied on his visit by his vice president and foreign minister, as well as his tourism minister and his deputy foreign minister.
The government of Panama is different from governments elsewhere, he explained, in that it is primarily made up of businesspeople seeking positive change, rather than politicians who want to take advantage of their positions. Martinelli, 57, is also a businessman – a millionaire who, prior to his election, headed a supermarket chain and served as a director of other companies.
He said he and his entourage of ministers, businesspeople and Jewish community leaders had come to Israel to learn.
“We came a great distance, but we are very close because of the Jewish heart of Panama,” he said.
Peres said he envied Panama because it had neither an army nor a war, and voiced the hope that one day the same could be said of Israel. Peres was also aware of the cooperative coexistence between Jews and Muslims there, and here, too, he expressed the hope that this was something Israel could emulate.
In their private conversation, the two presidents discussed security issues, agricultural development and the exchange of technological knowhow. Martinelli was interested in space exploration and in the acquisition of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Peres noted Israel’s concern that Iran was beginning to “penetrate” Latin America.
The meeting went on for much longer than scheduled, and at its conclusion, Martinelli invited Peres to pay an official visit to Panama.
While in Israel, Martinelli will promote investments in Panamanian enterprises and the development of new projects.
During his meeting with Netanyahu, the two men – according to sources in the Prime Minister’s Office – discussed strengthening the security relationship between the two countries, the possibility of a free trade agreement, agricultural cooperation, direct flights, an agreement to prevent double taxation, and the possibility of holding a joint cabinet meeting as Israel has done recently with the governments of Germany and Italy.
Following his meeting with Martinelli, Peres met with New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCullay, who is on a five-day visit to the region and whose schedule includes meetings with Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Turkish leaders.
On Monday, McCullay also participated in the dedication of a memorial in Ness Ziona to 50 New Zealand soldiers who lost their lives during World War I in a battle nearby.
Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom met with McCullay and told him that just as New Zealand had proved its concern for justice by sending troops to fight against the Turks in WWI and against the Germans in WWII, it now had to speak out against the evil of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and to impose severe sanctions against Iran to stop its nuclear program.
Peres also spoke to McCullay about the Iranian nuclear threat.
The president said he was pleased by the good relations that now exist between Israel and New Zealand. A spy scandal in 2004 caused a temporary rift.
Peres voiced approval of signing of a visa agreement between New Zealand and Israel that would enable young travelers from each country to work in the other.
McCullay was optimistic that such exchanges between young people would be beneficial to bilateral relations.
He was also pleased that Israel was reopening its embassy in Wellington and looked forward to welcoming the ambassador.
His visit, he said, was a demonstration of New Zealand’s strong interest in the Middle East process, and he offered New Zealand’s help toward any possible advancement in talks to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
New Zealand has long been part of UN peacekeeping in the Middle East,
and McCully’s itinerary includes the Change of Force Command Ceremony
at the Multinational Force and Observer (MFO) Mission in the Sinai.
Maj.-Gen. Warren Whiting of the NZDF will assume command of the MFO,
which monitors the peace agreement with Egypt.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.