Lasting peace in the Middle East is one of the European Union’s top priorities, Donald Tusk, president of the Council of Europe, told President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday.
The meeting between the two – followed by a round table discussion, which Tusk described as “stimulating” – took place amid growing speculation both in Israel and Europe on whether Rivlin will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Brussels or Strasbourg. Both are scheduled to address the European Parliament – Rivlin on Wednesday, and Abbas on Thursday.
Interviewed about the possibility by Army Radio, David Saranga, who is Rivlin’s foreign affairs adviser, said that European overtures on the possibility of such a meeting had been made to Rivlin, but nothing had been finalized.
When asked about it, Rivlin responded that he was willing to meet Abbas “anywhere at any time,” but stipulated that a more significant meeting would be one between Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, because it would be more likely to lead toward peace.
Fighting terrorism and achieving peace in the region were the focal points of the roundtable discussion in addition to which both Tusk and Rivlin stressed the importance of strengthening cooperation at all levels between the EU and Israel.
The EU’s best developed relations in the region are with Israel said Tusk.
On the subject of terrorism, Tusk conveyed condolences to those affected by the recent terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, and said that Brussels is the best place in which to discuss issues relating to terrorism, which he asserted can only be defeated by facing the threat together.
As far as peace between Israel and the Palestinians is concerned, Tusk offered the EU’s “unprecedented cooperation with Israel and the future state of Palestine,” including humanitarian and development aid.
He welcomed the fact that Israel put a freeze on “the demolition of Palestinian property during Ramadan,” and voiced the hope that this would become a permanent freeze.
Rivlin characterized Tusk as “a true friend of Israel,” recalling that when Tusk had been prime minister of Poland, he had worked toward increasing Polish awareness of the Holocaust and the need to fight anti-Semitism.
The fact that this is Rivlin’s first visit to the Council of Europe as president of Israel is a sign of the great importance in relations between Israel and the EU, he said, adding that the EU is Israel’s largest partner in many fields, but even more important, Israel and the EU “share values of democracy, freedom of speech and human dignity.”
Commending the EU for its steadfast willingness to advance peace in the Middle East, Rivlin said “promoting peace is in the viable interest of Israel.”
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to arrive in Israel on Monday for his final visit here in his current role.
Ban will be stepping down at the end of the year.
The UN chief is expected to visit both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and head to Gaza where he will inspect UN projects there. He is scheduled to meet Netanyahu and Abbas, with are expected to focus on efforts to jump-start the peace process, including the French peace initiative and the Quartet document on the situation in the region – expected to be released in the next few days.
Netanyahu is slated to travel to Rome on Sunday and meet US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Netanyahu is hoping to push a regional diplomatic process in lieu of the French idea for an international peace conference at the end of the year, which Israel adamantly opposes. He is also expected to hold a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu also spoke about the Palestinian situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on Tuesday. Netanyahu met Putin at the beginning of the month in Moscow.
The office said the leaders also discussed Russian-Israeli cooperation, and regional issues.
Later in the day, on arrival in Antwerp, Rivlin was deeply moved when the clocks of the city’s Cathedral of Our Lady chimed Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva.”
Welcomed by Mayor Bert De Wevger and Governor of the Province of Antwerp Cathy Berz, Rivlin was told of the important contribution which Antwerp’s Jewish community (15,000 strong) makes to the city’s economy.
Rivlin thanked the mayor for supporting the Jewish community and safeguarding its interests, saying: “At this time we must stand together, and say ‘no’ to hatred. ‘No’ to terrorism, and ‘No’ to extremism.”
Comparing Antwerp to Jerusalem, Rivlin said that both cities are microcosms demonstrating the ability of different communities to live together with respect, understanding and with a shared vision for the future.
Toward the end of his visit, Rivlin met with leaders of Antwerp’s faith communities, which conduct regular interfaith dialogue.
Late in the afternoon, Rivlin met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at NATO Headquarters to discuss NATO-Israel cooperation.
The secretary-general noted that Israel was the first Mediterranean Dialogue country to sign a Security of Information Agreement with NATO in 2000.
Commenting on Israel’s active role as a NATO partner for more than 20 years, Stoltenberg said he is pleased that the relationship is being taken a step further now that NATO has agreed to the establishment of an Israeli mission at NATO, headed by Israel’s ambassador to the European Union.
As he has done in all his other meetings, Rivlin discussed terrorism and the instability gripping the Middle East, mentioning the situation along Israel’s northern border.
He invited the secretary-general to tour the border area so that he could determine for himself the sensitive situation in which Hezbollah is believed to be rearming with Iranian support.
The two leaders agreed that enhanced cooperation is vital.
“NATO allies set great store by our relationship with Israel,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO is the only security forum that brings together NATO allies with Israel and Arab countries,” he added.Herb Keinon contributed to this report