Pope Benedict XVI celebrating mass
Israel has welcomed the election of Pope Benedict XVI despite his past association with a Nazi party youth group.

Israel says it hopes that Pope Benedict will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

"Israel welcomes the election of the new pope," said government spokesman, Mark Regev. "We are sure that under his papacy we will continue to see a strengthening relationship between Israel and the Vatican and between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church."

Pope John Paul II won the praise of Israelis by establishing diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel. And during his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land five years ago, he asked the Jewish people for forgiveness for centuries of persecution by the Catholic Church.

Former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau expects more of the same.

"I think that Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, is one of the most greatest friends of Israel in the Catholic Church," he said.

Joseph Ratzinger was a 12-year-old in Germany when Hitler's army invaded Poland to begin World War II. But the new pontiff's association with a paramilitary Nazi youth group has raised questions here, even though membership for children was compulsory. The banner headline in Israel's biggest newspaper said: "White smoke, black past."

Nevertheless, Rabbi David Rosen, a leader in interfaith dialogue who has met Pope Benedict several times, says his past is not a problem.

"All young people were enrolled in the Nazi Youth, this was an enforced enrollment, and there is actually nothing to suggest he had any ideological association with Nazism," he said. "On the contrary, his family was well-known as being anti-Nazi."

Rabbi Rosen told Israel Television that it is more important how Pope Benedict has behaved as an adult.

"And in all matters of anti-Semitism, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, has been absolutely resolute in his understanding of the evil and the danger and in condemnation of this phenomenon," he said.

Israeli leaders say the Jewish people and the Catholic Church have come a long way toward reconciliation, and there is no turning back.