As Italy's presidency of the European Union came to a close last month, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided to reveal a carefully guarded secret: Italy's presidency was a glorious and extraordinary success, full of achievements, he declared at a number of opportunities. His audiences were not sure whether this was just another example of his unusual sense of humor or whether he had actually decided to act seriously just when it was his turn to take his exit from the center of the European stage.
Berlusconi came to realize that he was misunderstood again. Instead of joining the victory chorus, the pundits competed among themselves to find the most precise description of the Italian presidency: fiasco, chaos, catastrophe, or perhaps simply "a brothel," as one particularly blunt observer said, adding that last month's "Brussels summit" that concluded the Italian presidency was the most "fabricated" ever.
The negative balance sheet they posit against Berlusconi includes: the crisis he created with Germany after comparing a German politician to a concentration camp kapo; his statement that Mussolini "did not kill anyone;" his remarks about the judges who "suffer from mental disturbances;" his public support for Russian President Vladimir Putin's brutal fight against Chechnya and the Russian oligarchs; his responsibility for the de facto burial of the EU Stability Pact; and, of course, the grand finale - the failure of the European constitution at the Brussels summit.
"It was more important for him to watch Milan's soccer game than to extend the summit another day and attempt to reach a compromise," according to a European diplomat. At a certain stage, when he realized that he was facing a serious crisis, Berlusconi suggested to the summit guests that they discuss "lighter" topics - like women and soccer.
On January 1, when the rotating presidency moved to Ireland and its prime minister, Bertie Ahern, correspondents in European capitals reported a huge sense of relief. Indeed, Berlusconi left what many call scorched earth behind him and his successor has a full and complicated agenda: the big enlargement of the EU in May, the appointment of a new European Commission president, discussions on the budget for 2007-1013, reform of the Stability Pact, promoting the "Lisbon agenda" for bolstering the EU's competitiveness, the European Parliament elections in June, healing the trans-Atlantic rift and, most importantly, a renewed attempt to adopt the European constitution.
In the face of all this, the new president is doing all he can to lower expectations. But this is thought to be a calculated tactic. Ireland is seen as "Europe's good little girl" that is not intent on promoting its own national-egotistical agenda on the European stage. Ahern himself is known for his mediating talents and his vast European experience, and will have no problem filling the narrow shoes left by his predecessor.
In Israel, the European world is upside down. Berlusconi is the one with the "big shoes" - a source of smiles and satisfaction, while a dark and threatening cloud hovers over Ahern's presidency. There is concern in Jerusalem that the best presidency in years for Israel will be replaced by the one that is potentially the worst for it. Berlusconi's Italy embraced Israel, ostracized Yasser Arafat, expedited the listing of Hamas as a terrorist organization, supported the war in Iraq, worked to soften resolutions critical of Israel at the United Nations, and promoted Israel's inclusion in the sixth European R&D program and joint agricultural accord.
Ireland, on the other hand, is considered one of the EU states most critical of Israel. Up until 1974, Ireland refused to establish relations with Israel and only in 1994 did it agree to open an Israeli embassy in Dublin. Ireland is remembered as a country that got into frequent arguments with Israel over the deployment of its battalion in the UNIFIL force in Lebanon.
It strongly opposed the war in Iraq and regards the peace process in Northern Ireland as a model for Israel, while Israel regards this model as impossible to implement here. Ireland is traditionally identified with the Palestinian side; its representatives insisted in the past on visiting the Orient House and its foreign minister, Brian Cowen - who is slated to visit Israel this week - preferred during his last trip to the area (in July) to visit Yasser Arafat and skip over Ariel Sharon.
Already on its first day as rotating president, Ireland asked Israel for clarifications on its plans to "expand settlements in the occupied Golan." In short, the Berlusconi honeymoon is over and the European routine is back. Indeed, the great disparity between the way Israel and Europe view the Italian and Irish presidencies of the EU reflects the major political differences between Jerusalem and most of the EU governments.
And because Berlusconi's Italy is the exception that highlights the European consensus, it is clear that the government of Israel has reasons for concern. The visit of Foreign Minister Cowen will be the opening round in the new Irish presidency that will either confirm or assuage Israel's worries.
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