After the three-day visit of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Israel and a short visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a judgement is due. Berlusconi came with a large Italian ministry delegation (Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, Public Works Minister Altero Matteoli and Health Minister Ferrucio Fazio) for the first Israeli-Italian joint cabinet meeting. It was the second joint-cabinet meeting for the Israeli government, after the joint German-Israeli session which was held in 2008. The same announcements and topics dominate speeches and actions of the Italian and Israeli politicians these days.
Holocaust, EU and the Big Brother
Berlusconi started his visit to Israel at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. And the reference to the Holocaust pervaded the entire visit. The day before coming to Israel, Berlusconi delivered a written interview published in Haaretz on 31 January. In answer to the first question about the close relationship between his government and Israel (in a certain way new for the Italian political tradition), Berlusconi made reference to the Holocaust: “The visit I made to Auschwitz made a deep impression on me. I told myself there that it was impossible not to be Israeli.” But the most relevant nuance in Berlusconi’s words is that he presented a link between Israeli “struggle for freedom,” the process of European construction and the Holocaust. The result of that equation is that “Israel is part of Europe. It belongs to the West.” In his speech in front of the Knesset on 3 February, Berlusconi continued that “as both Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Eliyahu Tuaf said, Italy is like a ‘big brother’ to Israel, a bond which originates in the friendship and fraternity and common fate.”
In the present period when freedom of speech has become a sensitive issue in Italy with Berlusconi’s continuous attacks against journalists and when Israel restricts the possibilities for foreign journalists to enter, work and live in Israel and Palestinian Territories, the reference to Italy as a Big Brother of Israel reminds one more of the Orwellian 1984 scenario, rather than the particular “brotherhood” between Israelis and Italians.
Iran and the Economy
Iran was a top agenda topic during this visit. In his parallel between the current situation and the age of totalitarianism, Berlusconi stigmatized the Iranian president Ahmadinejad: “We must watch out,” because “we’ve already had one such madman in history,” clearly referring to Adolf Hitler. On 1 February, during the official dinner, talking about the Iranian regime, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu stated that “humanity today is facing one of its most difficult challenges since World War II” and he added that “I must tell you, Silvio, my dear friend, you have a clear vision, you have determination and you have the courage of a genuine leader.”
In the Iranian chapter in the agenda of international relations, a large part is occupied by the economic issue. Meeting the Italian Prime Minister, the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman asked Berlusconi on Tuesday to increase pressure on Russia to drop their opposition to economic sanctions against Teheran. Berlusconi’s personal story and career is strictly linked with business and he used that in every context: in the same Haaretz interview, he proudly declared that “for my entire life, first as an entrepreneur and later as prime minister, I have had a love of freedom.” He also proposed “the beautiful town of Arice as a location for future peace talks.” And to please the “little brother,” Berlusconi stated that from 2006, Italy has reduced trade with Iran. But Italy remains the largest European trading partner of Iran, more than 1,000 companies are involved in the Islamic Republic and prominent enterprises like Fiat, Eni and Ansaldo have offices and factories in Iran.
The Arab World
Except for Iran, during this three-day visit, the Arab world was the great absent in the political speeches and references. Even if Berlusconi states that “Italy today is an essential stop, sometimes the first, that Middle Eastern leaders make in Europe,” and that Italy is “involved in a lasting and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian question,” the marginality of the Palestinian cause and reality during this visit is clear to everybody.
Before his meeting with the Palestinian President Abu Mazen, the Italian Prime Minister denied the validity of the Goldstone report, because, according to him, Operation Cast Lead against Gaza last year was a “justified firing on Hamas’ rockets.” As the most important Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, noted, the adjective “justified” is not present in the written version of the speech spread in the Italian government website. This means that the Prime Minister voluntarily added this adjective at the eleventh hour. Moreover, during the press conference with Abu Mazen in Bethlehem, in answer to a question of what kind of feeling the Separation Wall in Bethlehem provoked in him, he replied that he didn’t see the Wall because he was too busy reading his notes.
Kissinger of Arcore
In one of the most important left-wing Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, on 2 February, there appeared an article written by Zvi Schuldiner, professor of Political Science in the Israeli Sapir College, ironically defining Berlusconi as the “Kissinger of Arcore” (from the name of the village near Milan where Berlusconi lives). The reference to the American Secretary of State during the Nixon era is not casual: Berlusconi himself, in answer to the Haaretz correspondent’s questions, quoted Kissinger to draw a future scenario of war or peace in the Middle East: “Henry Kissinger used to say that there could never be war in the Middle East without Egypt, but no peace was possible without Syria.” However, behind these sentences, Israel knows that, despite his words and declaration, Berlusconi is one of the world’s most controversial men, morally, financially and politically. After this visit, in the next weeks and months the meaning of “brotherhood” between the Italian and Israeli governments will be revealed.