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(photo credit: Mark Neyman / GPO)
The first priority of Hamas is to prepare for another war, President Shimon Peres told Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol on Wednesday after the latter presented his credentials.
Celikkol was the last of five ambassadors who presented their credentials to Peres throughout the morning. The others were Henry Hanson-Hall of Ghana, Kyriakos Loukakis of Greece, Andrew Standley of the European Union and Roberto Eduardo Arango of Panama.
When Israel disengaged from Gaza, Peres reminded Celikkol, Hamas, instead of developing the area, began to shoot rockets at Israel. Then, after Operation Cast Lead, instead of restoring houses that had been damaged, it intensified its building of underground tunnels, he said.
Declaring that the peace process was quite advanced and that the remaining differences could be bridged, Peres said that the greatest obstacle was the division between Hamas and Fatah, with Iran and Hizbullah in the background.
Despite these problems, he said, it was imperative that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians be resumed as soon as possible.
"We have to bring an end to the conflict," he said. "The Middle East needs peace, and we need a peaceful Middle East. Turkey is an influential partner in this."
Celikkol, who participated in numerous bilateral discussions in Israel prior to his present assignment, underscored that relations between Turkey and Israel were built on solid foundations. He noted the success of Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's recent visit to Turkey, where he had met with President Abdullah Gul and members of the cabinet and had engaged in "fruitful dialogue."
High-level visits between Israel and Turkey will continue, he said.
In response to Peres's invitation to Gul to visit Israel and his query as to when he would come, Celikkol quoted Gul as saying he would come at an appropriate time.
"We are ready to help with peace in the region, and Turkey will contribute whatever it can toward peace between Israel and its neighbors," he affirmed.
Peres listed terror, violence and weapons of mass destruction as dangers confronting not only Israel and Turkey, but the whole region.
At his meeting with Standley, Peres expressed satisfaction that the EU statement on Jerusalem had been amended. It was not wise to keep on changing resolutions, he said, suggesting that the EU adhere to the resolutions passed by the United Nations.
"If we change resolutions every day, they will be meaningless," he said.
Referring to UN resolutions on Israeli withdrawal from territories, Peres commented that while the resolutions called on Israel to withdraw, "they don't say to whom we should hand them over."
Explaining the sensitivity of the status of Jerusalem, Peres said that prior to 1967, Jews had not been permitted to go to the Wailing Wall. Since that time, he added, Israel had allowed everyone freedom of worship, although even the most religious leadership agreed that Jews should not be allowed on the Temple Mount until the coming of the messiah.
Peres made the distinction between the Old City of Jerusalem and the new city, and emphasized that the suburb of Gilo was not part of the old city. Under the Clinton administration, he said, whatever was Jewish was considered part of Israel, and that which was not Jewish was regarded as becoming part of the Palestinian state.
Because the whole issue of Jerusalem is so complex, he said, it would be best to leave Jerusalem for last in reaching an agreement.
Peres also made the point that "Jerusalem is not in the West Bank," but under the jurisdiction of Israel, "and not even the prime minister can change that without the approval of the Knesset."
While Europe can and should play an important role in the peace process, said Peres, it was important that Israel and the Palestinians conduct direct talks without impositions. Half in jest but not without intent, Peres implied that the EU had erred when expanding in the direction of Eastern Europe instead of the Middle East.
Standley said that the EU's engagement with Israel and other countries in the region was of vital interest and that he hoped "that all parties involved will see our contribution as constructive and balanced."
The conclusions adopted on Tuesday, he said, were sincere and constructive efforts to assist and allow for the renegotiation process.
He agreed that negotiations should be conducted without any impositions from the outside.
Peres and Standley also discussed cooperation agreements between Israel and the EU. Conscious that this year marked the 13th anniversary of the science and technology cooperation agreement, which Standley termed "a vital aspect of our relationship," the EU ambassador toasted its "bar mitzva" - to which Peres retorted, "I was present at the birth."
Braving the crisp, cold air of Jerusalem, Hanson-Hall came with a large retinue from his embassy, all of whom were clad in colorful, toga-like robes worn over short-sleeved shirts and short pants.
Ghana was the first African country with which Israel established diplomatic relations in 1958. Those relations were severed in 1973 following a resolution by the Organization for African Unity (OAU) that called on all member states to break their ties with Israel. Diplomatic ties were renewed in 1994, and Ghana opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1996. The severing of relations apparently did not impinge on the affection that many Ghanans feel for Israel. Hanson-Hall and his wife Patience named their daughter Golda, now 20, after former prime minister Golda Meir.
"We want an increased Israeli presence in Ghana," Hanson-Hall told Peres.
The two countries already have an agricultural cooperation agreement, signed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during his visit to Ghana in September, but Ghana is also interested in Israel's science and technology.
Eager to enhance relations at all levels, Hanson-Hall said that President John Atta-Mills was keen to build more democratic institutions to move the country forward, and "we will continue to support Israel's efforts to achieve peace."
Present at the meeting between Peres and Hanson-Hall was Shimon Mercer-Wood, the grandnephew of one of Hanson-Hall's predecessors, James Mercer-Wood. The younger Mercer-Wood's father, Phillip, had come to Israel with James, decided to remain here, converted to Judaism and fought in the Yom Kippur War. Shimon Mercer-Wood now works in the Africa Division of the Foreign Ministry and accompanied Lieberman to Ghana. It was his first visit to the land of his ancestral roots.
"I'm fully Israeli," he told The Jerusalem Post, "but I feel an affinity to Ghana, and I feel privileged to have gone to Ghana under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry. It was the closing of a circle."
Loukakis, meanwhile, brought greetings from President Carlos Papoulias, who sent a message that Peres would always be welcome in Greece.
Acknowledging the invitation, Peres said he was more familiar with third-generation prime minister George Papendreou, who was a personal friend and whose father he had also known.
Peres disclosed that former prime minister David Ben-Gurion had studied Greek so as to be able to acquaint himself with Greek philosophy in the original language, and had used much of what he learned as a basis for building a state. Peres and Loukakis also discussed Greek music, for which Peres has a personal liking. His father, as a soldier in the British Army during World War II, was a prisoner of war in Greece. During his time there, he learned many Greek songs, which he later sang to Peres's children when they were small.
Arango told Peres that he had attended his Facing Tomorrow conference the day after his arrival in Israel and had immediately reached the conclusion that "this is a country looking to the future." He said Panama could be an important ally to Israel in a global context.
This alliance may soon express itself in economic terms. Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli, following a recent meeting with prominent figures in Israel's diamond industry, has agreed to changes in his country's legislation that would allow for tax exemptions for Israeli diamond dealers trading there, and would effectively make Panama a diamond hub in South America just as Hong Kong is in Asia. Martinelli, who is due to pay a state visit here in March, said he welcomed collaboration with Israel.