JERUSALEM – United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) met with the Israeli leader on Sunday as he began a Mideast trip to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and attend the opening of a Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
Annan also was expected to meet with many of the 30 world leaders attending ceremonies Tuesday and Wednesday for the inauguration of the new Holocaust museum at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem memorial.
The trip will take on personal meeting for Annan as well. His wife, Nane, is the niece of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary during World War II before disappearing.
The secretary-general hopes to help both sides "sustain the momentum that has been generated in the past few weeks," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Annan met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shortly after arriving in Jerusalem.
He cited the Feb. 8 Mideast summit in Egypt, where Sharon and Abbas declared an end to four years of bloodshed and the international show of support for the Palestinians at a March 1 conference in London. At the conference, international donors pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to promote Palestinian reforms.
The so-called diplomatic Quartet — the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union — sponsored the "road map" peace plan that stalled shortly after it was launched in mid-2003. The plan called on Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank, while calling on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Neither side complied.
A warming of relations between Israel and the Palestinians since the Nov. 11 death of Yasser Arafat has raised hopes in the international community that the peace plan would soon be restarted.
"We want to see to it that the United Nations, as a member of the Quartet, sees to it that Israel's obligations from the road map are carried out," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator.
The United Nations' traditionally rocky relations with Israel also were likely to come up during Annan's trip. Israel has long accused the United Nations of being biased toward the Palestinians.
Israel's already troubled relations with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — the main U.N. body serving Palestinian refugees — hit a low last year when Israel accused the agency of allowing Palestinian militants to transport a rocket inside a U.N. ambulance. Israel later backed off the claims.
But Annan also has won praise in Israel for his tough stance on terrorism and the U.N. role in resolving a border dispute with Lebanon after Israel withdrew its forces from the country in 2000.
"Despite the sometimes difficult history between Israel and the United Nations, Kofi Annan has built up a level of trust and confidence with the Israeli leadership that I think previous secretary-generals have failed to do," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
He said that following Annan's recent decision to name a new UNRWA chief, Israel hopes it can "turn over the page" with the agency.
Annan's visit to Yad Vashem comes weeks after the U.N. General Assembly commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps — a dramatic change for a body that had previously been reluctant to address the mass murder of the Jews during World War II.
At this week's ceremony, the museum at Israel's main memorial for the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust will unveil a $40 million facelift that took 10 years to complete. The museum has been expanded fourfold and will include new exhibits meant to personalize the Holocaust by focusing on individual stories.
Highlights will include a reproduction of a street in the Warsaw Ghetto that includes actual lampposts and cobblestones from the ghetto, scene of one of the most famous uprisings against the Nazis. The museum also includes a hall with the names of Nazi victims and an empty pit meant to symbolize the unnamed dead.
Annan is also expected to stop at the tree at Yad Vashem planted in honor of Wallenberg, whose fate was never resolved after his disappearance in Budapest on Jan. 17, 1945. Mrs. Annan has said Wallenberg's last letter from Hungary was to congratulate his sister on the birth of Nane.