President Fischer is accompanied on his official visit by the Austrian ministers of defense, foreign affairs, and education, as well as a delegation of approximately 80 Austrian economists and scientists.

(Communicated by the President’s Spokesperson)

The President of Austria, H.E. Dr. Heinz Fischer, began his official visit to Israel on Monday, 15 December 2008, which opened with a state ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. At the conclusion of the ceremony, a working political meeting was held between President Peres and President Fischer, who was accompanied by a number of his senior ministers: the Minister of Defense, the Foreign Minister, and the Minister of Education, as well as a delegation of approximately 80 Austrian economists and scientists. Israeli Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter also took part in the meeting. During the meeting, President Fischer asked to hear about the situation in Gaza, the negotiations with the Palestinians, the negotiations with Syria, and the Iranian issue.

In his opening remarks, President Peres said that Israel does not want to see Gaza go up in flames, nor does Israel wish that the Palestinian people will suffer, but that the key to resolving the difficult situation in Gaza was clearly in the hands of Hamas. "The minute they stop shooting rockets and terror activities against Israeli citizens, there will be no problems in Gaza," President Peres said, adding, "Israel is not prepared to compromise the security of its citizens. Nobody, neither Austria or France or England would tolerate people shooting at you every day with rockets and bombs and you would not try to stop it."

During their meeting, President Peres emphasized the fact that Israel withdrew from Gaza, and Hamas terrorists took control of the territory and began bombarding Israeli women and children with rockets. "Hamas does not rule out any means, and hurts first and foremost itself," said Avi Dichter, who noted that, "Hamas has returned to its attempts to fire rockets at power facilities and water sources, within Israeli territory, which supply electricity and water to Gaza, and the organization [Hamas] works ceaselessly to smuggle weapons and explosives, on a huge scale, through networks of underground tunnels."

On the topic of Syria, President Peres explained that Israel will not tolerate duplicitous games from the Syrian side: "Syria cannot continue to control Lebanon, to supply and to strengthen Hizbullah, and constitute a safe haven and a nest for murderous terror, and at the same time try to achieve a comprehensive peace with Israel. We are ready to extend our hand in peace, ready to hold serious and comprehensive negotiations, but Syria must decide whether to be a loyal branch of Iran or a state worthy of prosperity and peace among the countries of the world, chief among them the United States and Israel."

The topic of Syria also came up in the private meeting that was held between the two Presidents and Avi Dichter, in which President Fischer noted that the President of Syria will be arriving on an official visit to Austria in the coming weeks. Minister Dichter asked President Fischer to help Israel to repatriate the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and noted that the high command of Hamas is based in Damascus. The President of Austria replied that it is his intention to help Israel on this matter, that the issue of Shalit would be raised in his meeting with the Syrian President, Bashar Assad, and that he will pass on an additional message to him reflecting the spirit of Fischer’s meeting with President Peres.

On the topic of Iran, President Peres said that Iran was deceiving the entire world and that it is developing nuclear weapons for the purpose of tremendous destruction and not for civilian needs as they claim. He said that Iran is an existential danger to world peace and everything must be done to form a united front of the international community against it. President Fischer said that he understands well the all-encompassing nature of the Iranian danger to the world and that in the recent period great efforts have been made to strengthen a series of initiatives of the European Union against Iran. President Fischer added that he believes that soon a strong, unified, clear voice will be heard, expressing Europe’s opinion on important issues including of the struggle against Iran, the advancement of peace in the Middle East and a solution to the global economic crisis. "I understand that all of us are concerned regarding Iran, and we all must fight together with the entire international community, including the Security Council of the United Nations and the European Union, in order that Iran will not succeed in producing a nuclear bomb."

At the close of the meeting, President Fischer said, "I welcome the upgrading and warming of the relations between Israel and the European Union. Relations between Israel and the European Union are very important and as the President of Austria I want to increase my involvement on matters related to Israel and the region, both in helping to advance the peace process and in increasing scientific, economic, and cultural cooperation between Austria and Israel."

The topics of World War II, anti-Semitism, and racism were raised during the conversations between the Presidents. President Fischer said that the Austrian people must preserve the memory of historical events, including the difficult things that happened, speak about them honestly, and learn from them.