During visit, Berlusconi draws parallel between Ahmadinejad and Hitler
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi drew a connecting line yesterday between his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the Iranian nuclear program, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and calls for Israel's destruction.
"We must watch out," the visiting premier said. "We've already had one such madman in history."
Berlusconi also said his great dream is for Israel to join the European Union.
Speaking at a welcoming ceremony hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortly after his arrival in Israel, the Italian leader said he would like to his visit produce "a shared commitment to work together for the future."
"I hope that all of us together can look forward to a future of prosperity, and mostly of peace for your people, whose existence is still doubted by someone whom we all wish to oppose," he added.
In response to the Italian leader's statement, Netanyahu said that "Rome and Jerusalem laid the foundations of Western civilization. Thus it is important for Italy and Israel to stand beside each other, determined to defend our future and our cultures."
Netanyahu also said he intends to deepen the ties between the two countries. During Berlusconi's visit, the two countries plan to sign a series of agreements for cooperation in various fields of activity.
Berlusconi, accompanied by seven ministers in his cabinet, arrived for a two-day visit that will include the first joint cabinet session the two countries have ever held. The cabinet session kicked off last night with an official dinner at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem that the Israeli ministers hosted for their Italian guests.
Today, the Italian prime minister is scheduled to hold a series of meetings. He will begin with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and move on to opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Later, he will meet with Netanyahu for a working lunch. The other visiting ministers will also meet with their counterparts in the Israeli cabinet.
Shortly after he was received by Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office, Berlusconi took part in a tree-planting ceremony in Jerusalem, organized by the Jewish National fund. And after hearing him make an off-the-cuff speech to senior JNF officials at the ceremony, it is easy to understand his popularity in Italy. He is charismatic, with a natural sense of humor and an air that combines generosity toward his hosts with flamboyance.
Berlusconi, who conceals his 74 years behind thick layers of make-up, ended his remarks by promising to return to see the tree he planted in another 47 years, when he turns 120.
"At the start of the 19th century, life expectancy stood at 23," he explained. "At the start of the 20th century, we reached 43, and now we are at 80. So it will be easy to make it to 120."
When it came to planting the tree, Berlusconi showed his expertise - broadening the pit, shifting the rocks, planting and watering.
'The soul cries out'
Berlusconi's next stop was Yad Vashem, where he spent more than 90 minutes. At the end of his visit to the Holocaust memorial and museum, he said the place "makes the soul cry out - never again!"
Berlusconi was accompanied at Yad Vashem by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and the museum's director, Avner Shalev. Yad Vashem staff said the visiting premier requested that his tour not be shortened, even though he was behind schedule.
In the evening, Netanyahu hosted Berlusconi for an official dinner. As is his wont, Netanyahu began by mentioning the Iranian nuclear threat. "Humanity today is facing one of its most difficult challenges since World War II," he said. "A radical Islamist regime is threatening Israel, the region and the entire world ... I must tell you, Silvio, my dear friend, you have a clear vision, you have determination and you have the courage of a genuine leader."
Berlusconi said that Israel is now one of the five countries closest to Italy, and that for him, it was the most natural thing in the world "to support your people, your country, your history. My policy has always been in line with the policies of the prime minister of Israel. The State of Israel is becoming one of the five countries closest to Italy. As such, you could request from us anything, and we will support you in the international community. I want to promise you that this is not only my position. This is the position of my entire government and the entire Italian people, who want to be close to you."