ROME (May. 21)
Israelis may feel Europe is against them, but at least one European leader is increasingly emerging as a friend of the Jewish state.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged to World Jewish Congress leaders on Wednesday that he would fight anti-Semitism, promote sympathy for Israel in Europe and work to broker peace in the Middle East.
Speaking less than two months before Italy takes over the six-month rotating E.U. presidency in July, Berlusconi told a WJC delegation that he planned to fly to Israel next month to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
“Mr. Berlusconi said he considered Israel as part of Europe and agreed that Israel was not getting a fair shake” from Europeans in its conflict with the Palestinians, a source who attended the meeting told JTA. “He said he would work vigorously to change that.”
The source said Berlusconi told the delegation that he would fly to Israel on June 8 and meet with Sharon, but not with Palestinian leaders. Meeting with just the Israeli side on such a visit, the source added, would represent “a break with both Italian and European tradition.”
According to Reuters, a source close to Berlusconi later clarified that he meant he wouldn’t meet Palestinian leaders compromised by terrorism, an apparent reference to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Sharon recently announced that he would refuse to meet with leaders who also meet with Arafat, whom Israel accuses of encouraging terrorism.
The WJC delegation, led by President Edgar Bronfman, came to Rome following the organization’s executive meeting in Jerusalem. They will meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on Thursday.
Still shaken by a series of suicide bombings in Israel over the past few days, the group wanted to convey to Berlusconi Israel’s dismay at what it views as a lack of sympathy on the part of the European Union, European public and European governments for Israel’s losses and suffering from Palestinian terrorism.
Berlusconi made “incredible statements” of support for the Jewish state, the source who attended the meeting said.
“He told us that he would stand shoulder to shoulder with President Bush to help broker peace,” he said. “As far as I know, no other European leader has come out so unambiguously.”
The delegation presented Berlusconi with a copy of the most recent WJC annual report on international anti-Semitism, which details a sharp rise in anti-Jewish violence and sentiment.
“Berlusconi said this was terrible and had to be fought,” the source said. “He said we had to take it seriously.”
He said Berlusconi also expressed interest in a series of Jewish cultural, educational and communal projects under way in Europe, and asked Cobi Benatoff, the Italian president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, to keep his office informed.
Berlusconi was a vocal supporter of President Bush in the U.S.-led war on Iraq. He also has emerged as one of Europe’s most sympathetic leaders regarding Israel.
After meeting with Berlusconi in Rome in December, Israeli President Moshe Katsav hailed him as a “great friend of Israel,” and told Rome’s Jewish community that his meeting with Berlusconi “had revived great hopes.”