Israeli and Jewish leaders praised outgoing Pope Benedict XVI Monday for working to strengthen relations between Catholics and Jews.

President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, said he was “saddened” to hear of Benedict’s shock resignation, and praised the outgoing pope for boosting ties between the Vatican and the Jewish state.

“Under his leadership the Vatican has been a clear voice against racism and anti-Semitism and a clear voice for peace. Relations between Israel and the Vatican are the best they have ever been and the positive dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is a testament to his belief in dialogue and cooperation,” Peres said.

Benedict, 85, announced Monday he would step down from the post on February 28, a highly unusual move he attributed to his advanced age.

Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said the pontiff heralded in an age of unparalleled Jewish-Catholic relations.

“During his tenure the Rabbinate and the Church enjoyed better relations than ever before,” Metzger said. “He deserves great credit for the advancement of relations between all religions.”

Benedict, who was a member of the Nazi’s Hitler Youth as a teenager, was the third pope to visit Israel, coming in 2009 after a visit to the Auschwitz Birkenau death camp in Poland.

Chief rabbis Yona Metzger, left, and Shlomo Amar, right, presenting Pope Benedict XVI with an illustrated text in Jerusalem in 2009. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Chief rabbis Yona Metzger, left, and Shlomo Amar, right, presenting Pope Benedict XVI with an illustrated text in Jerusalem in 2009. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The visit drew a lukewarm response from officials at Jerusalem’s national Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, who found Benedict’s speech lacking. His call for a Palestinian state also put a damper on the trip for some.

Danny Ayalon, a former deputy prime minister who represented Israel in talks with the Vatican over its status in the Holy Land over the past four years, said Benedict was perhaps treated unfairly over his Nazi past.

“He was conscripted and did not volunteer … his family and (he) himself actually showed objection to the Nazi regime. I believe he did redeem himself,” said Ayalon. “I have learned to appreciate his spiritual prominence and also his friendship … to the Jewish people.”

Some Jews were incensed at Benedict’s constant promotion toward sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope accused of having failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust and protect Jews. And they harshly criticized Benedict when he removed the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who denied the Holocaust.

Yet like his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict made reaching out to Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was to send a letter to Rome’s Jewish community and he became only the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.

British chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who is also stepping down, said Benedict was a “compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom.”

Sacks said in a statement on his website that he was “honored” to have welcomed the pontiff to Britain in 2010 and spend time with him on a visit to Rome in 2011. “I saw him to be a man of gentleness, of quiet and of calm, a deeply thoughtful and compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom. I wish him good health, blessings and best wishes for the future,” Sacks said in a statement.

The Catholic leader announced his shock decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Monday morning. A concave to elect a new Catholic leader will be held in March.

Benedict called his choice “a decision of great importance for the life of the church.”