President Shimon Peres has not abandoned his old friend, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

“We always have had and will have great respect for President Mubarak,” Peres told incoming Costa Rican Ambassador Rodrigo Carreras, the first of five new envoys to present their credentials at Beit Hanassi on Monday.

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“Not everything he did was right, but he did do one thing for which all of us are thankful. He was the peacekeeper of the Middle East.”

The other incoming ambassadors were Estonia’s Tiina Intelmann, Chile’s Joaquin Montes Larrain, Bulgaria’s Yuri Borissov Sterk and Ethiopia’s Helawe Yosef Mengistu.

Alluding to the riots in Egypt and the current regime in Iran, Peres declared that “a fanatic religious oligarch is not better than a lack of democracy.”

For Carreras, who was Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel in the late 1980s – and whose father, Benjamin Nunez, had twice been ambassador before him – it was like a homecoming.

When he heard the Costa Rican and Israeli national anthems at the start of the ceremony, he confessed, it brought tears to his eyes.

Estonia’s Intelmann spent six years as her country’s ambassador to the United Nations before being transferred to Israel. Peres welcomed her as her country’s first resident ambassador to Israel. There have been several Estonian ambassadors to Israel, but none who actually lived here. The country opened an embassy in Tel Aviv some 18 months ago.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ives visited Israel last June. At the time, Ives told Peres that both countries knew what it meant to stand up and fight for your existence.

Intelmann said she had spent a lot of time with Ives just before coming to Israel, and that he had shared with her the impressions of what he had seen and learned. He was extremely interested in enhancing cooperation with Israel, especially in the areas of information technology and security.

When sitting down to chat with Chilean Ambassador Montes Larrain, Peres remarked that “Chile certainly gave a message to the world. All of us salute you.”

He was, of course, referring to the superhuman efforts made to rescue miners who spent 68 days trapped underground in a Chilean mine. “What you did was unforgettable,” Peres said, citing the Talmudic quote: He who saves a single life is as one who saved a whole world.

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The rescued miners and their spouses will visit Israel on a special Holy Land pilgrimage of thanksgiving as guests of the Tourism Ministry. They are due to arrive on February 23 for an eight-day tour that will include visits to holy sites, prayer meetings with religious leaders and general sightseeing.

Montes Larrain said his country was extremely grateful to the government and the Ministry of Tourism for the invitation. He also expressed excitement about the upcoming visit of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who at the beginning of March will become the first Chilean president to visit Israel in more than four decades. Montes Larrain invited Peres to visit Chile, to which he last traveled close to 40 years ago in his capacity as minister of transportation.

After receiving Sterk’s credentials, Peres said he could not speak about Bulgaria without sentiment. Casting his mind back to the Holocaust years, Peres lauded the manner in which the country had behaved in relation to its Jewish population.

“Bulgaria proved that a different attitude was possible,” responded Sterk. He regretted that while Bulgaria was under Soviet rule there had been no possibility of developing relations, but expressed hope that the two countries would make up for the long lacuna, especially with cooperative projects in high technology, agriculture, defense and security.

Returning to what Bulgaria did for its Jews during the Holocaust, Sterk said that one of his missions in Israel would be to create greater awareness of this by persuading Yad Vashem to name more Bulgarians as righteous among the nations. Peres noted that Bulgaria’s relations with the Jews and Israel were as good as ever, as exemplified by the instant Bulgarian response to the recent Carmel wildfire, when it sent a team to help extinguish the flames.

Peres, who claims to be more interested in the future than the past, nonetheless often brings up ancient history when meeting new ambassadors. He did so again with Ethiopia’s Mengistu, saying that Israel’s relationship with Ethiopia was not only political, but historical, going back to Biblical times and the liaison between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Peres commended Ethiopia for defending its heritage, especially taking into account its isolation from Christian communities.

Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, he said, were a bridge to greater understanding between the two countries and their continued relations.

“We look on Ethiopia as a dear and important friend,” said the president, who reminisced about his visit there in the days of Emperor Haile Selassi. Mengistu invited Peres to undertake a state visit to Ethiopia some time this year.

The pomp and ceremony that usually accompanies the presentation of ambassadorial credentials was on this occasion diluted for two reasons. One is that the 30-day mourning period for Peres’s wife Sonia has not yet passed; the other was the inclement weather.

Usually, an IDF honor guard lines the path on which a new ambassador walks to the door of Beit Hanassi, while a police or army band plays the national anthems and Israeli marching songs beneath the pergola at the entrance to the building.

On Monday, both the honor guard and the Israel Police Band crowded into the main reception area inside the building. The only music was the national anthems, with other minor changes of protocol.

Likewise on Tuesday, the reception for German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be low key and treated as a working visit rather than a state visit, in consideration of the fact that Peres is still in mourning.

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