ROME (AP) - Premier Silvio Berlusconi likes to cast himself as
an international statesman, touting his warm personal ties with
Russia's Vladimir Putin and former U.S. President George W. Bush
and his efforts to raise Italy's profile on the world stage.
Less noticed is his friendship with Israel, reversing a
decades-long pro-Arab tilt by Italian governments and making Italy
perhaps the Jewish state's best friend in Europe.
It's a special relationship that has yielded recognition: When
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sets out Tuesday on his
first official visit to Europe since his election in March, Italy
will be his first stop before he heads to France.
For Israel the stance of Berlusconi's Italy offers a hospitable
window into the EU - where Israeli governments of the right, as
Netanyahu's, have historically found little cheer. Berlusconi, for
his part, gains a better defined international profile and perhaps
some points in the United States, which has been far more
understanding of Israel than most European nations over the years.
Last month, Israel's hardline foreign minister Avigdor
Lieberman, who has raised diplomatic eyebrows by his anti-Arab
statements, made Rome his first stop for his European tour as well.
The billionaire premier, notorious for his headline-making
gaffes, was honored by a Jewish group a few years ago with its
"distinguished statesman award," despite protests from three
Nobel Prize winners.
Berlusconi's pro-Israel stance stems in part from his staunch
pro-Americanism. It may also be a way to legitimize political
allies who come from neo-fascist backgrounds, using Israel as a
sign of their transformation into mainstream conservatism.
The Italian leader has backed pro-Israel rallies and has
supported Israel's right to defend itself during its recent armed
conflict with Hamas in Gaza - while other European leaders tended
to view the hundreds of fatalities Israel caused in its retaliation
for rocket attacks as disproportional.
The Netanyahu trip comes less than two weeks after the Israeli
leader finally gave qualified endorsement to the concept of a
Palestinian state. He will likely be sounding out Berlusconi and
French President Nicolas Sarkozy to see if they are on board with
the caveats he placed on such a state, drawing sharp Palestinian
criticism, such as the demand that it be demilitarized and
recognize Israel as a 'Jewish state.'
In his June 14 speech Netanyahu also said the Palestinians must
give up any notion of refugees who left what is now Israel - or
their millions of descendants - resettling in their former homes.
He will be meeting Thursday in Paris with U.S. President Barack
Obama's special Middle East peace envoy, former Sen. George
Sandro De Bernardin, a Foreign Ministry official and former
Italian ambassador to Israel, said the fact that Netanyahu is
beginning his European tour in Rome attests to the good relations
between the two countries.
"It is meaningful that Netanyahu begins his European tour in
Italy," he said. "It underlines that the Israeli government looks
at the role that Italy can have in a special way and also
(underlines) the quality and substance of our bilateral
Israeli media gave extensive and favorable coverage of Italy's
decision to join the United States, Israel and a few other EU
countries in boycotting a U.N. conference on racism in Geneva in
April that was marred by anti-Semitic rhetoric.
"He fully supports Israel's security requirements, he supports
Israel's eventual entry into the EU as a full member - he said so
during a visit here," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman
Yigal Palmor of Berlusconi.
In an interview with Italian state TV RAI broadcast Monday
evening, Netanyahu said bilateral relations were "excellent" and
called Berlusconi "a great friend of Israel, committed to
promoting peace and security."
Berlusconi manages to juggle contrasting diplomatic initiatives,
while trying to accommodate all sides.
He recently hosted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who in the
past has been accused of supporting anti-Israeli terrorism. Gadhafi
praised his "dear friend" Berlusconi and the Italian, in turn,
said he had a "true and profound friendship" with the Libyan, who
has ruled unchallenged for some four decades.
For decades Italian governments and most major political parties
pursued close relations with the Islamic world to assure energy
supplies as well as out of general sympathy for the Palestinians.
In contrast, "Berlusconi has deep bonds of friendship with the
United States and Israel," said Germano Dottori, a foreign affairs
specialist in Rome. "He comes from the tradition of the Republican
Party," he said, referring to a tiny but influential pro-Israel
party in Italy that served in a long line of coalition governments.
In 2003, the Jewish rights group the Anti-Defamation League
honored Berlusconi with its statesman award, despite condemnation
by Nobel prize-winning economists Franco Modigliani, Paul Samuelson
and Robert Solow.
They said it was inappropriate to honor Berlusconi because of
his claim that fascist dictator Benito Mussolini "never killed
anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal
exile." More than 7,000 Jews were deported under Mussolini, 5,910
of whom were killed.
The Anti-Defamation League was honoring Berlusconi because of
his support for Israel and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Berlusconi's allies claim that he should receive the Nobel Prize
for his purported work using his friendship with Putin to help end
the conflict between Russia and Georgia last summer.