berlusconi GREAT 311.
(photo credit: AP)
Italian assistance to Iran’s space program will be one of the issues Israeli officials will focus on during talks with their Italian counterparts, security officials said on Sunday, on the eve of a visit by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and eight members of his cabinet.
The massive Italian delegation is expected to arrive on Monday afternoon, with Israeli officials saying the visit symbolizes a significant upgrade in Israeli-Italian relations. Among those accompanying Berlusconi will be Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa.
Iran is expected to be one of the key issues during the nearly three days of intensive talks, with Israel increasingly concerned about Italian business ties with the Islamic Republic.
One item expected to feature prominently on Israel’s agenda is the cooperation between the Milan-based Carlo Gavazzi Space company and Iran’s Space Agency in the development of the Mesbah 2 communications satellite, which was manufactured by the Italian company. Israel’s concern is that the satellite will be used to carry surveillance equipment.
Yiftah Shapir, from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the existence of the 65-kg. satellite was first revealed in 2005, when Iran announced that it would be launched aboard a Russian satellite launch vehicle (SLV) into space. The Carlo Gavazzi Space Company has denied it will be involved in the launch of the Mesbah 2.
Last February, Iran succeeded in launching the 20-kg. Omid satellite into space aboard its own domestically manufactured SLV called the Safir. Iran is not believed to have SLVs capable of launching a larger 65-kg satellite like the Mesbah 2.
“There is not a lot of information that has been published about the project,” Shapir said. “The launch was supposed to be in 2005 and has been repeatedly pushed off.”
Last month, though, Teheran announced that in early February it will unveil three new satellites, including the Mesbah 2, which Iranian officials said was still under construction. In November, Iran announced that it planned to launch the Mesbah, Farsi for lantern, in 2011.
Defense officials said that Berlusconi and La Russa would be briefed on the latest Israeli intelligence on Iran and about the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile development.
“The Iranians are in the midst of one of the most advanced missile programs in the Middle East today,” one official explained. “The development of SLVs by the Iranians is another way of testing ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads while covering them up as SLVs.”
Berlusconi and La Russa are also expected to pressure Defense Minister Ehud Barak to purchase the M-346 Master, made in Italy, as a new trainer aircraft for the Israel Air Force. The IAF is considering the M-346 as well as Korea Aerospace Industries’ T-50 in place of the Skyhawks currently used to train fighter pilots.
Defense officials said that the multimillion dollar deal was important for the Italians since a sale to the IAF would likely pave the way for additional international sales.
The talks with Berlusconi are also expected to deal with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Syria, the situation in Lebanon, where Italy contributes a large part of the UNIFIL forces, and a host of bilateral issues.
Berlusconi is scheduled to plant a tree in a JNF forest and visit Yad Vashem shortly after landing on Monday, and then meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, followed by a state dinner in his honor at the King David Hotel.
On Tuesday, Berlusconi will meet with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, opposition head Tzipi Livni, and again with Netanyahu before chairing a joint cabinet meeting with Netanyahu.
The following day he will deliver an address to a special session of the Knesset, followed by a lunch with President Shimon Peres before going to Bethlehem and then back to Rome.
Berlusconi is bringing with him seven Leonardo da Vinci sketches that will be on display in the Knesset.
One senior diplomatic source said the idea behind bringing much of the
Italian cabinet for meetings with their Israeli counterparts and a
joint cabinet session is to take a very good and robust political
relationship and ratchet it up a level to expanded, tangible
cooperation in all fields, from defense to culture and the environment.
This is the second time that Israel has hosted this type of delegation
from another country for a joint cabinet meeting – the first being last
year, when Israel hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a host of
her ministers. Netanyahu and a number of his ministers paid a
reciprocal visit to German two weeks ago.
The expectation is that the Italians will host Israeli ministers for a
reciprocal visit next year, and this will become an annual event. Plans
for a similar arrangement with the Polish government are being drawn up.