ROME (JTA) — Israeli President Shimon Peres is on a state visit to Bulgaria and Romania aimed at bolstering bilateral relations with the two Balkan nations.
In the Bulgarian capital Sofia on Wednesday, Peres was presented with the country’s highest state decoration, the Stara Planina Award.
Peres thanked Bulgarian President Giorgi Purvanov for Bulgaria’s refusal to deport its nearly 50,000 Jews to death camps during the Holocaust, even though Sofia was a Nazi ally.
Peres’ talks with Purvanov and other senior Bulgarian officials centered largely on improving cooperation in the fields of technology, industry and tourism. But Peres also cited the need for Palestinians to hold direct peace talks with Israel in the "interests of peace and peaceful coexistence."
The Bulgarian media quoted Peres as saying that Sofia would be an ideal venue for such negotiations.
"I can’t imagine a better place, really. So close, so convenient; this sounds a bit like a self-invitation," Peres was quoted as saying.
The daily Dnevnik quoted Peres as saying Israel had no desire to "return to Gaza" and that Israel would lift its blockade if Gaza residents were peaceful and well meaning.
Bulgaria maintains good relations with both Israel and the Palestinians. Peres’ visit comes less than a month after a visit to Bulgaria by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A Bulgarian government statement said Peres’ trip was "the result of the high level of the bilateral cooperation between both countries in all spheres."
Purvanov had visited Israel in 2008.
Following his meetings in Sofia, Peres was flying to Bucharest for high-level talks with Romanian officials.
He also was slated to attend a memorial ceremony Thursday for the six Israeli soldiers and a Romanian soldier killed in the crash of an Israeli military helicopter last month during training exercises in central Romania.