President Shimon Peres - AP - Feb. 21, 2011
President Shimon Peres on Feb. 21, 2011. Photo by AP
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President Shimon Peres said Monday he believed Libyan leader Muammer Gadhafi's reign was nearing an end.

It was an "irony of history" that Gadhafi had recently expressed his desire for "a Middle East without Israel," but that it now looked like "there will be a Libya without Gaddafi," Peres said at the start of a four-day visit to Spain.

The president made the comments at the headquarters of the Jewish community in Madrid.

The current events in the Middle East were "full of hope," Peres said, that "the moderate, the young, those who want democracy will win, and not the tyrants, the dictators, nor the corrupt."

The official part of Peres' visit, which will mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel, will begin on Tuesday.

His program includes meetings with King Juan Carlos, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez, opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, and other leaders, entrepreneurs and intellectuals.
Talks were expected to focus on the protests sweeping the Arab world and on Iran's nuclear activities, in addition to bilateral issues.

In an interview with Spanish national television shortly before his visit, Peres expressed trust that more democracy in Arab countries would help to achieve peace in the Middle East and to "solve the Palestinian problem."

Israel and Spain established diplomatic relations on January 17, 1986, nearly four decades after the creation of the state of Israel.

The lack of formal relations was attributed largely to Spain's friendly relations with Arab countries during Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship.

However, as Spain joined NATO and the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, in the 1980s, it began to increasingly seek a role as a mediator between Israel and Arab countries.

Spanish-Israeli relations are also marked by the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity from Spain in 1492.

King Juan Carlos has apologized for the expulsion, but descendants of the expelled Jews have demanded stronger gestures, such as being granted the Spanish nationality.

Peres' visit to Spain followed that of Jimenez two weeks earlier to Israel, where she was booed by Jewish settlers while visiting a Spanish-funded Palestinian housing project in Hebron.

Peres came to Spain accompanied by about 40 Israeli business executives with the aim of boosting economic relations.

Spanish exports to Israel grew by 38 per cent to 760 million euros ($1,040) in 2010. Israeli exports to Spain increased 21 per cent to 793 million euros.
The far-left party Izquierda Unida and several Spanish associations criticized Peres' visit, saying he was a "persona non grata" in Spain.

The Committee of Solidarity With the Arab Cause and another association urged the National Court to investigate a legal complaint they had filed against Israel over the May 2010 Gaza aid flotilla incident in which nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists were killed.