Italy endorses demilitarised Palestine
24.06.09 @ 09:33
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has given his backing to Israel's plan for a demilitarised Palestinian state as a solution to the decades-old Middle East conflict.
Speaking to reporters following talks in Rome with Israel's hardline leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, on the Israeli prime minister's first trip to Europe since his election, Mr Berlusconi described as "absolutely necessary" for peace a future Palestinian state that would be unable to maintain an army.
The Italian premier also supported the requirement that the new country recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a move that implicitly renounces claims to any return of refugees to land lost at the founding of Israel in 1948.
The twin endorsement is in line with Mr Netanyahu's plan for peace outlined some nine days ago, and represents a decidedly warmer embrace of the Israeli leader's perspective than that accorded by the European Union as a bloc or by the United States.
Following a speech by Mr Netanyahu on 14 June in which the premier recognised a two-state solution to the conflict for the first time - a key requirement of Brussels and Washington - EU foreign ministers and their counterpart across the Atlantic cautiously welcomed the words as a "small step" but not sufficient to move forward with the informally suspended upgrade in relations with Tel Aviv.
Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, whose country is about to take over the tiller of the bloc for the next six months of the EU's rotating presidency, on Tuesday repeated the European perspective ahead of the Italian meeting, describing again the speech as a "small step forward," but adding: "significantly more needs to be done."
The Israeli leader's flat rejection of an end to settlement construction in the occupied territories as well as a refusal to lift a crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip ruled out any advancement in EU-Israel relations for the time being.
Mr Berlusconi, fast becoming Israel's best friend in Europe, did encourage Israel on the question of settlements, but employed far softer language than that of the rest of Europe.
After a two-hour meeting between the leaders, the Italian premier said he had: "drawn the prime minister's attention to the need to send signals about stopping the establishment of settlements, which would otherwise be a hindrance to peace".
Ahead of the meeting, the country's foreign minister and former European commissioner, Franco Frattini, told reporters: "We would very much appreciate a gesture on the Israeli side announcing a moratorium on the expansion of existing settlements."
Mr Frattini however also said that it is "not a problem" for Italy if Israeli settlements internally expand, but "expanding settlements like wildfire, that is a problem."
Mr Netanyahu is due to fly to Paris Wednesday for a meeting with the French president, who is expected to press the Israeli prime minister on the question of settlement expansion.
While in Paris, the premier was also due to hold talks with American Middle-East peace envoy former US senator George Mitchell.
However, the meeting has been cancelled and Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak will meet with the US envoy instead, when he visits Washington next week.
While in Rome, Messrs Berlusconi and Netanyahu also discussed the situation in Iran and the Italian leader said that he had impressed upon his Israeli counterpart that "Italy, like other Western nations, believes Iran should not have nuclear weapons."