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Italian Leader Promises Money to Aid Future Palestinian State

Italy’s prime minister has promised Yasser Arafat he would back a major economic assistance package for a future Palestinian state.

Silvio Berlusconi made the promise during a meeting with the Palestinian Authority president on Tuesday during Arafat’s one-day visit to Italy.

A statement from Berlusconi’s office said Berlusconi reaffirmed Italy’s commitment to a peace process that would lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, while guaranteeing security for Israel.

As part of this, he pledged that Italy would promote “a great plan for reconstruction and Palestinian development so the new state can participate in the growth of the region in conditions of equal opportunity.”

Earlier this month, Berlusconi called such a plan a “Marshall Plan for Palestine,” referring to the economic aid the United States provided Europe after World War II.

Berlusconi is generally considered Italy’s most pro-Israel prime minister in years, but Italian political and public sentiment has long backed the formation of an independent Palestinian state.

On Monday, during an official visit to Tunisia, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi — with whom Arafat met Tuesday evening — said “the time was right” for an independent Palestinian state, as long as Israel’s security is guaranteed.

Before that, Arafat met privately for 15 minutes with Pope John Paul, who urged Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

A Vatican statement said the pope repeated his appeal that “both sides put down their weapons and return to negotiations.”

For his part, Arafat issued a condemnation of “every form of terrorism” during the meeting.

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