Berlusconi, Friend of Israel and U.s., Narrowly Loses Italian Election

Over the past five years, the center-right Italian government headed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi emerged as one of Washington’s staunchest allies — and one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Europe. Now, however, Berlusconi’s loss in national elections to Romano Prodi– whose center-left coalition includes some far-left parties that are strongly pro-Palestinian — will mean continued but possibly less demonstrative support for Israel.

So close was the April 9-10 vote that even a week later Berlusconi still had refused to concede defeat, and Italy seemed poised on the edge of political limbo.

Berlusconi’s pro-Israel stance had earned him “statesman of the year” honors from the Anti-Defamation League. His loyalty to President Bush won him the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress last month.

Prodi, a former president of the European Commission who has served as prime minister in the past, is expected to form a new government and take office sometime next month. He has stated that he wants to maintain a close relationship with the United States, but intends to realign Italian policy closer to that of the European Union.

Ehud Gol, Israel’s ambassador to Italy — who has called Berlusconi’s Italy one of Israel’s “best friends” — told Israel’s Army Radio that he expected “the warm relations” to continue under Prodi, “though maybe not in the same form or on the same level.”

Lisa Palmieri-Billig, Rome representative of the American Jewish Committee, agreed.

“We hope and rely on the fact that there are strong voices within the coalition who are friends of both the United States and Israel,” she told JTA.

Likewise, Alessandro Ruben, head of the ADL office in Rome, said there were a number of figures in Prodi’s coalition who were “kosher” — that is, who have demonstrated firm support for Israel.

These include Piero Fassino, head of the Democratic Party of the Left, the largest party in Prodi’s center-left coalition, who was instrumental last year in founding a national pro-Israel group, the Left Wing for Israel.

Prodi’s coalition also includes the Radical Party, whose leaders long have adopted a pro-Israel policy, and the Daisy, a moderate-left party whose leader, Francesco Rutelli, forged links with Israel’s Kadima party on a trip to Israel in February.

Rome’s leftist Mayor, Walter Veltroni, also has made a point of supporting Jewish causes and attempting to use his office and position to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

“There is a range of people in the center-left coalition,” Ruben said, adding that it would be important to maintain a balance in the coalition and also to maintain a commitment to finding peace.

Jewish observers will closely monitor Prodi’s policy. In fact, Prodi already has run into trouble on the issue.

Last week, a mistranslation of the Arabic voice-over of an interview he gave to the satellite news channel Al-Jazeera made it seem as if he was opening to Hamas.

“I shall commit myself at the European level to shape a new position with respect to the new Palestinian government,” it quoted him as saying. “I am looking with great attention at the signs of an opening being made by Hamas.”

The reported misquote sparked sharp reaction in Italy, and Prodi’s office rushed out a correction, noting that what Prodi really said was, “Now I’ll get to work in an active way in Europe and we shall see the position in the future. Besides, there have been openings by Hamas that are very interesting.”

The Europe Union classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization. The Europeans this month froze direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, saying Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist and acknowledge past Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.

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