Berlusconi 'dreams' of Israel becoming an EU member
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi began a three-day tour of Israel on Monday (1 February) by saying he wants the Jewish state to join the EU.
The Italian leader brought seven cabinet ministers along on the trip to underline the importance of bilateral ties.
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"This shows that we consider Israel one of the European countries, and you, Benjamin, you know - because I told you years ago and reiterated in our meeting in Cernobbio near Lake Como - that as long as I am one of the shapers of politics, my greatest dream is to include Israel among the European Union countries," Mr Berlusconi said at a welcoming ceremony with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Italian premier said Italy and Israel have an affinity because of their place in history: "We are here to show our recognition and our pride in the fact that we are part of a Judeo-Christian culture that is the basis for European culture."
The same point was made by Mr Netanyahu: "I can think of few peoples who have contributed more to Western civilisation than our two peoples. In both Rome and in Jerusalem, the foundations of Western culture were laid."
Later in the day, the pair visited the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust and lashed out against Iran, a fierce critic of Israel which stands accused of building nuclear weapons.
Mr Berlusconi compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler, while Mr Netanyahu called Iran a "bloodthirsty regime."
The Italian leader also nodded toward Palestinian interests. He told Israeli left-wing daily Haaretz that Israel should stop building settlements on occupied land and he plans to meet the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, on Wednesday.
Mr Berlusconi's remarks about enlargement do not reflect EU policy.
EU ministers in 2008 agreed that the two sides should have a special relationship with regular summits and foreign ministers' meetings. But the diplomatic upgrade was frozen following Israel's assault on Gaza in early 2009 and a bloc of EU states remains opposed to reviving the plan.
The Israeli authorities have never said they want to join the EU.
But a poll by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in April last year said 75 percent of Israeli Jews and 40 percent of Israeli Arabs would like to become part of the union.
The European Commission at the time told EUobserver that any "European state" can join the EU in line with Article 49 of the EU treaty.
"The term 'European' combines geographical, historical and cultural elements which all contribute to European identity ...[which] is subject to review by each succeeding generation," it explained in a statement.