Silvio Berlusconi defines himself as "the finest leader in Europe and the entire world," a man of unmatched capabilities and qualities. It appears that from an Israeli viewpoint, the Italian prime minister is, indeed, worthy of the title he bestows upon himself - or at least the first part of it. "Israel's best friend in Europe," according to his colleague, Ariel Sharon.
Israel's ambassador to Italy, Ehud Gol, wrote here ("Italy, the EU and the Middle East," Haaretz, July 1) that Berlusconi's decision to refrain from meeting with Arafat during his visit to the Middle East was a courageous step that emphasized "the consolidation of new and different patterns of thought regarding how best to promote and encourage the peace process." Gol believes that Italy is the only country in Europe capable of "thawing the tense relations between the old continent and America," and that "a strengthened, balanced European line led by Italy can only contribute to the implementation of a political solution to the Middle East conflict."
The Israeli eyes of Sharon and Gol do not deceive them; but they do not reflect the entire picture, either. To broaden the perspective, there is a need for Italian glasses, and primarily European ones.
Anomalia is the most common word used in the commentaries on the Berlusconi phenomenon and his term as the holder of the EU presidency, which began Tuesday. Political commentators in Rome are asking themselves if the Italy of Berlusconi (the first president in the history of the country who was forced, while serving in his post, to defend himself in a court of law against criminal charges) would today meet the conditions to be accepted into the EU; if Berlusconi's undermining of the freedom of the press, the independence of the legal system and the principle of equality before the law does not endanger the Italian democracy; if the fact that he exploits his post for his private and personal needs and refrains from resolving the conflicts of interest between his being a businessman and his position as prime minister hasn't already turned Italy into "a second-rate democracy."
"An unworthy leader," and "devoid of moral authority" were the terms used this week by most European newspapers to describe the incoming EU president. Berlusconi was forced to deal with blatant name-calling, such as "the Godfather," together with infuriating comparisons to Joerg Haider and even Joseph Goebbels.
Nevertheless, at least from a European viewpoint, Berlusconi has rightly earned most of the criticism: Already in 2001, he shocked the continent when he refrained from denouncing his finance minister, who attacked the euro, and orchestrated the dismissal of the pro-European foreign minister, Renato Ruggiero. He was also the only European leader who opposed the initiative to implement a uniform European arrest warrant and joined George W. Bush's criticism of the Kyoto Protocol. Above all, he was the only leader from among the countries that founded the European Community who signed "the letter of the eight," which expressed support for the U.S. war in Iraq.
His EU colleagues, even his seemingly natural partners Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, treat him like an amateur leader, one who shoots from the hip, a clown who spins like a weather vane. His rash steps, his embarrassing slips of the tongue, and his impressive ability to create monumental foul-ups, evoke ridicule at best and real antagonism at worst. Such was the case when he spoke of Western culture's supremacy over Islam, when he proposed abolishing the European Commission, and when he called for the inclusion of Russia and Israel in the EU.
Such is the case, too, with regard to the Middle Eastern context. Israeli representatives in Italy testify that "Berlusconi's solidarity with the government of Israel is absolute. He doesn't have an iota of criticism against us." But herein lies the problem. What was defined by The Wall Street Journal as "Italy's release from decades of groveling at the feet of the Arab states" was perceived in the Arab world as a new policy of defiance.
The boycott of Arafat led to a counter-boycott against Berlusconi on the part of Abu Mazen. The EU countries do not see the man, who is viewed by them as the destroyer of his country's traditional European policy, as the leader who could mend the continental and trans-Atlantic rifts. To the same degree, it is difficult to criticize the Palestinians for not perceiving Berlusconi as the unbiased mediator he professes to be.
If there is hope that Italy's EU presidency will turn out to be a success for Europe and the Middle East, it lies primarily in the capricious nature of its duty president. He may be contemptuous of Islam, but has also expressed support for Turkey's inclusion in the EU. He faced off against the Palestinians but immediately invited Abu Mazen to Rome. He opposes competition with the United States but enthusiastically supports turning Europe into "a security and political giant."
One can only hope that the wind will stop the weather vane in the right place.
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