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(photo credit: AP)
Israel appeared to lose a good friend Tuesday, as election returns indicated former premier Romano Prodi had edged out current Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by the slimmest of margins.
Berlusconi disputed the results and may force a recount. But even if the tally stands, Israeli officials and analysts said the elections do not spell disaster for the Israel-Italy relationship. Some, however, cautioned that there might be a change in the tenor of the conversation between the two countries.
"This certainly was a golden period for the relations between Italy and Israel," former Israeli ambassador to Italy Avi Pazner told The Jerusalem Post. "I'm sure that the atmosphere that was created with Israel will continue, and I hope it will continue at the same level."
Ehud Gol, the current Israeli ambassador in Rome, used similar language when he told Army Radio he expected that "the warm relations will continue, though maybe not in the same form or on the same level."
Italian author and La Stampa Israel correspondent Fiamma Nirenstein warned, however, that Prodi "will not be as friendly as Berlusconi in understanding that Israel must defend itself from terrorism" and will push Israel "to concede as much territory as possible."
Berlusconi's conservative government distinguished itself with strong support of both Israel and the United States, even though his backing for the Iraq War was extremely unpopular at home. Despite pledging to pull out troops within the year, he seemed unable to overcome public displeasure with a suffering economy.
The center-left Prodi led a coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals, former Communists and Communists, but it is unclear what parties would be in a government under his stewardship. Berlusconi has suggested a "grand coalition" might result.
Nirenstein said that Prodi's narrow victory would certain mitigate Prodi's positions and powers.
And Italy expert, Hebrew University Professor Mario Sznajder said that regardless of the government's make up, Italy's interests remain the same - as would its good relationship with Israel. "They have to have a cordial relationship will Israel if they want to have any kind of influence in the Middle East," he said, pointing to its Mediterranean position, security concerns, and immigrant influx as key issues that contribute to its profile in the region.
Sznajder added that a Prodi administration "might be a bit more critical of Israel" in international forums - where Berlusconi often demonstrated his support for the Jewish state - but that in matters of substance "nothing has changed."
If there has been any significant shift, Sznajder suggested, it has been to distance Israel from unsavory alliances with a governing coalition tainted by anti-democratic tendencies. The Hebrew University professor singled out Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, who refashioned his neo-fascist party into a mainstream conservative faction, for particular opprobrium.
He described ties between Israel and Jewish groups with Fini as "extremely harmful," and said that Israel's distancing itself from the outgoing Italian leadership could be a positive move if Israel "wants to be respected as a democracy."
But Nirenstein said that it was Berlusconi's ministers who took aggressive steps to help Israel, such as spearheading the campaign to have the European Union list Hamas as a terror organization. That decision has had major ramifications following the Hamas election victory, in which Europe's ability to fund and interact with the new Palestinian Authority has been limited.
And Nirenstein pointed out that Berlusconi refused to meet with Yasser Arafat. "This would not have happened with Prodi."
She stressed, though, that Prodi is not anti-Israel but does support a two-state solution.
Whatever the stance of the new administration, Pazner cautioned that Israel should not take its relationship with the Italian government for granted. "We'll have to work very hard at it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.