On the heels of a friendly two-day visit to Israel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spent just a few hours yesterday in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he met briefly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and told reporters that the Palestinian demand for a peace agreement based on the pre-1967 borders was acceptable, but that he preferred not to get involved in the details of the negotiations.
Berlusconi also skirted a question about Israel's security barrier by saying he hadn't noticed it.
"I'm going to let you down because I didn't notice," Berlusconi told an Italian journalist who asked him about his impressions of the barrier at a joint news conference with Abbas.
Protocol obliged Berlusconi to get out in the cold and rain to switch from an Israeli car to a Palestinian one at the Israeli checkpoint in the wall, Palestinian sources confirmed. However, the Italian leader said he had not paid attention.
"I was getting my thoughts in order on what I would I would say to the president," he said. "I apologize for that."
Berlusconi said he told Abbas that Italy was willing to launch an economic development plan for the West Bank on the model of the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II. There would be no peace without economic well-being, the Italian leader said.
Italy understands that it is necessary to halt construction in West Bank settlements so that peace talks with Israel can be resumed, Berlusconi said. He said he had conveyed his impression to the Palestinians that Israel was serious about resuming negotiations shortly and implementing the two-state solution.
A Palestinian journalist asked Berlusconi about his view on Palestinian deaths in last winter's Gaza war, given that the Italian leader had said earlier in the day that Israel's Operation Cast Lead was justifiable and that Italy supports Israel in the face of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
"As it was right to weep over the victims of the Holocaust, so it was also right to express pain over what happened in Gaza," Berlusconi said.
His earlier comments were made in a speech before the Knesset, in which he told lawmakers that Italy had objected to the Goldstone report on the war, which he said "attempted to incriminate Israel when it justifiably responded to Hamas rockets."
"The security of Israel within its borders and its right to exist as a Jewish state are, for us, an ethical choice and a moral imperative in the face of any possibility of the return of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and a failure on the part of the West to remember," Berlusconi said.
In contrast to his brief visit to the West Bank and a press conference that included no friendly bantering, Berlusconi was effusive in his Knesset appearance.
"Our friendship toward Israel is a frank, open and mutual friendship," he said, adding that it went beyond rhetoric and diplomacy and "came from the heart." He called the establishment of the Knesset one of the most amazing events of the 20th century.
The Italian leader said the international community "will not be able to accept nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran," and expressed support for the two-state solution. He also praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his "courage" in supporting such an approach.
In the course of Netanyahu's remarks at the Knesset session, Berlusconi appeared to wipe away a tear when Netanyahu recalled how the Italian leader's mother helped a Jewish girl during World War II.
While riding the train on her way to work, an Italian woman saw a German policeman attempting to arrest a Jewish girl and stood between them, saving the girl's life, Netanyahu said. "That brave woman was named Rosa," he said, "and one of her sons is named Silvio Berlusconi, today the prime minister of Italy."
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