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Berlusconi and his love of Israel

Sometimes alone among European leaders, the late prime minister of Italy was a true friend of the Jews.

Israel's President Shimon Peres receives the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on February 03, 2010.  Photo: Miriam Alster/FLASH90
Israel's President Shimon Peres receives the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on February 03, 2010. Photo: Miriam Alster/FLASH90
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

In February 2010, I accompanied then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who passed away June 12, on a trip to Israel in the wake of Italy’s biggest change in policy towards the Jewish state.

We were met with greetings and congratulations from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-President Shimon Peres. Although they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, there was no disagreement between Netanyahu and Peres that Berlusconi was a different kind of European politician. In particular, Berlusconi was passionate about the welfare of the Jewish people and a revolutionary in the world of usually pro-Arab European politics.

At the time, I was a member of the Italian parliament and vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and I knew that Berlusconi was changing history. The speech he prepared to deliver before the Knesset was first reviewed by Giuliano Ferrara, a great enthusiast for Israel and an opponent of watering down the speech, and I had the privilege of reviewing it as well.

With Berlusconi’s passing, the time is right to remember this profoundly important and controversial actor in Italian politics and his shift away from Italy’s Cold War attitude towards Israel, which included a strong pro-Palestinian bias on both the right and the left.

Berlusconi was having none of this. As an entrepreneur, a liberal and an Atlanticist conservative often vilified by the European left, his sympathy for Israel came naturally. Israel’s enemies were his enemies and Israel’s friends were his friends.

He knew that the Jewish people had been born in the Land of Israel. He knew what the Jews had suffered over the centuries. He knew that the slanders and libels constantly directed towards Israel were exactly that. He saw the Jewish state as indispensable and hoped it would one day become part of the European Union. “We liberals thank you for existing,” he said to Israel and called the Jews, like Pope John Paul II, the “elder brothers” of Christian Europe.

Berlusconi also noted that Israel’s existence was intolerable to fanatics and terrorists because it demonstrated that “there is a possibility of making democracy live even outside the borders of the West.”

On his trip to Israel, he did not limit himself to mere words. He promised that he would obtain “sanctions against Iran, which wants nuclear weapons to destroy [Israel]” and would do so “without wasting time” and with “daily commitment.” This was straight talk.

Even when it was most difficult, in the midst of the massive opposition to the Iraq War in Europe, Berlusconi maintained his commitment to the relationship with Israel and the United States. It cost him dearly, especially as the war was opposed by the pope and the president of Italy. Nonetheless, he maintained a strong and dignified attitude throughout.

Under his tenure, Italy also took part in the global war on terror, staying close to then-U.S. President George W. Bush and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, even as he sought to avoid a clash with France and Germany, both of which opposed the Iraq War.

Berlusconi did so because he believed that wiping out the sources of terrorism, vanquishing Saddam Hussein and promoting security in the Middle East was the natural path for a European democracy, and this included friendly relations with Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy.

As a result of this, Berlusconi’s visit to Israel was met with amazement and warmth. He was the first European leader in decades who, despite meeting with Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas, expressed absolute and unyielding belief in the Jews’ right to their own state.

Certainly, the peace process was important to him, but peace was not his primary goal. He was more concerned with Jewish lives and repeated endlessly that the Jews have a right to defend themselves. I had the honor of hearing several times about how his mother Rosa put her own life at risk to save a young Jewish girl.

Berlusconi loved to tell stories. He was a volcano of ideas. This led to my successful establishment, with his blessing, of the first commission against antisemitism in the Italian parliament and the first interparliamentary committee with the Knesset.

He listened, he encouraged us to put our ideas into practice and then he went on to his next idea, his next project, sometimes telling us one of his jokes before leaving.

I respectfully asked him not to tell jokes about Jews, even if they were entirely innocent. He didn’t listen to me. But then again, he rarely listened to anyone. Contrary to the claims of his opponents, that was his greatest strength.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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