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(photo credit: AP)
President Shimon Peres said Wednesday that recent meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and a new international diplomatic push in the Middle East could be the most promising developments yet in efforts to bring peace to the region.
"The overall atmosphere is encouraging, maybe it's the most important opening in negotiations I can think of," Peres said after meeting in Rome with Italian Premier Romano Prodi.
"It's not over yet, but it's a good start," Peres said, referring to a series of meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Peres, a veteran statesmen and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was in Italy for five days of talks with top government officials and the pope.
The visit came as Tony Blair, now a representative of the "Quartet" of Middle East mediators, was in Jerusalem to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Italy's foreign minister has also been on a Middle East tour, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit the region on Sept. 18 - part of new international efforts ahead of a US-sponsored conference in November.
Speaking at joint news conference with Prodi, Peres also urged the United Nations to pass tougher economic sanctions against Iran over Teheran's contentious nuclear program.
"Even the pale UN resolutions that have been passed so far are beginning to have an effect on the Iranian leadership," he said. "Every responsible person would like to stop the danger of Iran with economic measures instead of military measures."
Prodi said he and Peres had discussed furthering the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through economic cooperation. They also talked about the situation in Lebanon, where Italy is the major contributor to the UN peacekeeping force charged with enforcing a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
Prodi, who is scheduled to meet with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa on Thursday, said he would continue to press influential leaders in the region to seek information on two captured IDF soldiers, whose seizure by Hezbollah sparked last year's conflict.
Peres previously held talks with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and was meeting with Rome's Jewish Community later Wednesday at the main synagogue. The meeting with Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled for Thursday at the papal summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo, in the hills south of Rome.
Peres will then spend the weekend at an international political and finance conference on Lake Como, which annually gathers world leaders, including statesmen from Arab countries.