FM Shalom praised Egypt’s release of Azzam Azzam and said it is crucial for Europe to play a greater and more balanced role in the region.

 FM Shalom meets with German FM Fischer


FM Shalom and FM Fischer at joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom began a joint press conference with visiting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer today by praising the release of Israeli Azzam Azzam by Egypt.

He noted that Azzam’s release after eight years’ imprisonment was the result of “many efforts over many years.” Shalom recalled that he had stressed the importance of releasing Azzam in a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Geneva a year ago, and that Mubarak said this would be possible after Azzam had served at least half his sentence.

Shalom expressed Israel’s gratitude to Mubarak, to Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Soliman, and to Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, noting that Azzam’s release signaled a change in relations with Egypt. This closening of ties is also being expressed economically, with the signing of a major deal for the supply of Egyptian natural gas and the upcoming inauguration of a free trade zone with Egypt and the United States on December 14.

Such a deepening of relations will mean greater stability for the region, Shalom told reporters at the Foreign Ministry, noting that Israel expects this to lead to the opening of relations with some 10 Arab states. He added that he hopes this will also result soon in the return of the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel.

“This is the hour of the moderates,” said Shalom; the time to encourage the moderates in the Arab world to engage in dialogue and cooperation.

Minister Shalom welcomed his German counterpart as “a close friend of Israel and of peace,” and related that the main subject of their talks was the upcoming election in the Palestinian Authority. He noted that Israel supports the election and is doing everything it can to enable it to be conducted freely.

He said the key to its success would be the PA’s putting an end to terrorism and incitement.

On a different matter, Shalom noted that the European Union had made a step in the right direction with the agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear development, but said that international pressure must be stepped up to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear power.

German Foreign Minister Fischer said that a new opportunity for peace has arisen with the forthcoming election of a new Palestinian leadership, Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the resumption of contacts between the parties, and the reelection of US President Bush. Israel can help this process by ensuring the free movement of Palestinian voters, he said.

Fischer said that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas should help this process by achieving a cease-fire and halting incitement against Israel. The new Palestinian leadership should move forward with the help of a willing European community, he said.

The minister praised the close cooperation between Germany and Israel and noted that preparations are under way to mark the 40th anniversary of the opening of bilateral relations.

In answer to a question, Shalom said it is crucial for the European countries to play a greater role in the region, but to do so they must have a balanced attitude. An example of balance would be not to adopt PA final-status demands in advance, he said. Politically, the EU should help ensure fair PA elections, while economically it should help establish industrial zones, he added.

Minister Fischer noted that the EU has excellent economic relations with Israel, while politically it strives for balance. The EU has contributed greatly to the PA’s economic reconstruction after Oslo, and looks forward to the opportunities presented by a new Palestinian leadership and Israel’s disengagement, he said. “We now have to talk about Palestinian nation building,” he concluded.