Beliefs or Interests

Sources involved in the arrangements for President Moshe Katsav's trip said it was the criticism of the cost of the trip that appeared in Ma'ariv this weekend that scotched the journey.

ROME - President Moshe Katsav was scheduled to fly to Rome tomorrow, but his trip was canceled at the last minute. "Because of the upsurge in terror," said a statement from the President's House, but sources involved in the arrangements for the trip said it was the criticism of the cost of the trip that appeared in Ma'ariv this weekend that scotched the journey.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was supposed to visit Israel at the beginning of the month. His trip was also canceled, "because of the terrorism," said a senior Foreign Ministry official in Rome. Berlusconi did not want to be in a situation where he'd have to meet with Yasser Arafat, whom he regards as someone who hosts terrorists.

Unlike Katsav, money is not a problem for Berlusconi, considered the wealthiest man in Italy. His empire is worth some seven billion dollars. If Katsav had not canceled his trip, it's entirely possible that the newspaper that would have come with his breakfast in the hotel would have been owned by the Berlusconi family. If he decided to hook up to the Internet while in Italy, he no doubt would have come across another Berlusconi property. In the evening, if he wanted to watch a movie, it would likely be from the video chain owned by Berlusconi and produced by one of his companies. After the movie, if he were to flip through the TV channels, he would not be able to miss one of the three Media-Set networks owned by the Italian prime minister. And so on and so forth.

On the eve of the April 2001 elections in Italy, the Economist warned that Berlusconi's election to prime minister would be "a dark day for the rule of law in Italy." The Italians thought otherwise. Now, a little more than a year later, the polls show few have changed their minds. Piero Fassino, head of the largest opposition party - the Democrats on the left - thinks the balance has been negative, but he is, after all, the opposition. "The center-right in Italy is a combination of populism, neo-liberalism, and protectionism," he says. "They have no real ideology. Berlusconi offered the voters a dream. They believed his wealth and success would rub off on them. But the government has failed totally in the first year. It turns out it's easier to weave a dream than to make it come true."

Fassino and other critics of the government note that within the first year in office, the Italian government has lost two top ministers and two deputy ministers. They say Berlusconi has damaged the division of powers, that he harasses public media and that there has never been so much tension between the government as the legal system and unions. Right-wingers and some independent observers say the criticism is exaggerated and derives from political interests. They say the real delay in the promised reforms is a result of the downturn in economic globalization.

But the observers agree on one thing - the left is not offering an appealing alternative. It's confused, has no agreed-upon leadership and no electoral strategy other than anti-Berlusconism. If Berlusconi doesn't commit a colossal mistake he may yet be the first Italian prime minister since World War II to actually complete a full term in office.

That's good news for the Israeli government. At the G-8 summit in Calgary, Canada in June, Berlusconi said there "are more than suspicions" that the Palestinian Authority is involved in terrorism. He called on Arafat to "make a grand gesture" and leave the political arena. A Wall St. Journal editorial said of the change in Italy: "With his declaration, Berlusconi apparently freed Italy from decades of kowtowing to the Arab states."

Giovanni Sartori scoffs at that. The political science professor says, "Berlusconi never ceases to contradict himself. He has no principles other than his immediate interests. He can say one thing in the morning and the opposite in the afternoon." The leader of the Jewish community in Rome, Prof. Amos Luzzato, agrees. He says Berlusconi's sympathies lie in his uncompromising pro-American orientation. It isn't profound thinking on his part and certainly not a reversal of Italy's traditional policies. Italy's position in the Middle East will remain opportunistic.

Israel's ambassador to Italy, Ehud Gol, says Berlusconi really is acting out of deep belief in the Israeli government's direction. "His identification with us is absolute and that can be seen in the media he controls."

Jerusalem says the real test of Berlusconi's intentions will be whether he signs a new memorandum of understanding on security "that's been stuck in his drawer for the past year." The Foreign Ministry in Rome says, "The matter of the MOU is now under discussion and we hope it will be signed soon." That optimistic announcement carries a common European cliche: "Stabilization, even relative, of the region, won't hurt the advancement of the matter."