Austrian president vows to bring up Schalit case with Assad

Fischer received by Peres in Jerusalem; two leaders discuss peace with Palestinians, captured soldier, Iranian threat.

peres heinz fischer about to kiss 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
peres heinz fischer about to kiss 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Austrian President Heinz Fischer was received by President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Monday, where the two discussed issues ranging from peace talks with the Palestinians, the fate of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, and efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The visit, only the second by an Austrian president, brought Fischer full circle after he first came to Israel in 1963 to volunteer at Kibbutz Sarid, where he picked apples and worked in the chicken coop. In the 45 years that have passed since his first visit, Fischer has been to Israel several times and has "followed developments closely and with great interest." Just as he is no stranger to Israel, he is no stranger to Peres, who in greeting him said that aside from the formalities of the visit, he was happy to welcome an old friend whom he has known "since we were both Social Democrats." Referring to the highs and the lows in Israel's relationship with Austria, Peres singled out as one of the high points the fact that Austria's longest serving chancellor Bruno Kreisky, had allowed Soviet Jews en route to Israel to pass through Vienna when other European countries denied them entry permits. Peres did not mention one of the low points, the Nazi past of one of Fischer's predecessors in office Kurt Waldheim, who had been a Wehrmacht Intelligence officer. Nonetheless, Austria's dishonorable history during the Holocaust hung heavy in the air, and Fischer made no effort to evade the issue or to downplay it. "Austria must speak openly of such problematic subjects and draw the relevant conclusions," he said. Fischer, who will also visit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where he will place a wreath on the grave of Yasser Arafat, asked Peres to review the progress of peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the situation in Gaza. He also pledged to bring up the issue of Schalit with Syrian President Bashar Assad during the latter's upcoming visit to Vienna, and talked about international sanctions that should be taken against Iran. Peres and Fischer also discussed rising anti-Semitism and racial prejudice in Europe. Peres reminded Fischer that Israel had voluntarily disengaged from Gaza. "No one forced us to do it," he said. "We decided to leave. We want to see Gaza flourishing and developing. We do not want to see Gaza burning. We don't want to see the people of Gaza suffering." Peres urged that Europe puts its shoulder to the wheel to help fuel the Palestinian economy and to convince the Palestinians that they cannot achieve their goals with terrorism. On the issue of Iran, Fischer concurred with Peres that war is not a solution for problems between countries. It was, he said, "the strong united wish" of the international community, the United Nations Security Council and the European Union that Iran must not threaten another country - particularly Israel - with atomic weapons. Fischer did not offer an explanation as to how this should be done. From Beit Hanassi the two presidents went to Yad Vashem accompanied by members of the Austrian delegation, which included Austrian Foreign Minister Dr. Michael Spindelegger, Defense Minister Norbert Darabos, who was in Israel earlier this year, and Minister of Education, Art and Culture, Dr. Claudia Schmeid. In the Hall of Remembrance, Vienna's Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg recited the memorial prayer El Maleh Rahamim for the souls of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.