ROME - Israeli PM Netanyahu arrives in Rome for the first leg of his EU tour in order to feel the pulse of one of Israel’s best ally in Europe concerning his recent statements. The fact that Netanyahu is beginning his tour in Rome reveals the good relations between the two countries, says an official.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Italy on Tuesday on his first trip to Europe since being elected, visiting Rome and Paris to sound out regional allies about his qualified endorsement of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu meets first with Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whom he described in a RAI state television interview Monday as "a great friend of Israel, committed to promoting peace and security."
Italian FM Franco Frattini, who was attending the meeting, said Italy would ask Netanyahu to quickly open talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He said Italy would also appreciate the "gesture" of a moratorium on expanding existing settlements, the Apcom news agency reported.
Seeking for backing
Less than two weeks after the Israeli leader finally gave qualified endorsement to the concept of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu 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. These include 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 Mitchell.
Berlusconi's pro-Israel stance has made Italy perhaps Israel's best friend in Europe. 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. Israel's hard-line foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has raised diplomatic eyebrows by his anti-Arab statements, made Rome his first stop for his European tour last month 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 PM has backed pro-Israel rallies and supported Israel's right to defend itself during its recent armed conflict with Hamas in Gaza - while other EU leaders tended to view the hundreds of fatalities Israel caused in its retaliation for rocket attacks as disproportionate.
Sandro De Bernardin, a Foreign Ministry official and former Italian ambassador to Israel, said that 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," he added.