Lieberman in Italy pushes Iran issue

Frattini urges stronger Israel-EU ties; both FMs sress European role in the Mideast peace process.

Lieberman Frattini  248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Lieberman Frattini 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, on his maiden journey as foreign minister to a Europe that is very skeptical of him and his policies, placed Iran at the top of his agenda during talks with his Italian counterpart, Franco Frattini. "For us it is important to underline that the greatest problem at the moment in the Middle East is Iran; an Iran that is becoming nuclear and is becoming, or has already become, a destabilizing factor for the entire world," he said at a press conference in Rome, following his meeting with the Italian foreign minister. Lieberman is scheduled to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday. Lieberman, who is also scheduled to go to France, the Czech Republic and Germany during this four-day trip, is expected to lobby for tougher European measures against Iran. He seemed to find a sympathetic ear in Frattini, who said that "the international community and the United States and, perhaps even more, Arab countries in the region, are worried about Iranian influence." Frattini added that "understanding for Israel's concerns must be total." Despite these words, Italy is Iran's biggest trading partner in Europe. Lieberman, meanwhile, said it was clear to him that his first stop in Europe as foreign minister would be to Italy, as an expression of his appreciation for close Italian-Israeli ties - ties manifest in Italy's decision not to attend last month's Durban II conference in Geneva. According to Lieberman's office, he told Frattini that Israel was in the midst of a thorough policy review, and that he had come to Rome not only to put Israel's positions across, but also to listen. He said that Italy could fill an important role in establishing ties between Israel and moderate Arab states. Lieberman also told Frattini that Israel regarded the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI as very important, and that he hoped the visit would serve as an example of possible dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Regarding the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, Lieberman, at the press conference, skirted around the issue of a Palestinian state, saying that the "government's goal is not to produce slogans or make pompous declarations, but to reach concrete results." He eschewed details, saying that the government was still drawing up its new foreign policy, but added that he was confident the Netanyahu government would "reach a secure and definitive peace with the Palestinians and the Arab nations around us." Frattini said at the news conference that he had reminded Lieberman "that Europe and the United States agree on the importance of making peace our common goal." Lieberman said he had come to Europe to exchange opinions on Israel's new policies and push for a planned upgrade in EU relations, which some officials in the bloc have threatened to put on hold. Upgraded ties would give Israel better access to EU markets, closer cooperation in areas such as energy, environment and battling crime and terrorism, and more educational exchanges. Last week, the EU's commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's refusal to endorse a Palestinian state and said the upgrade would depend on Israel's commitment to the two-state solution. Israel warned the EU that such criticism endangered the bloc's role as broker in the peace process, and Lieberman said Monday that the upgrade must "not be connected to the other problems of the Middle East." Frattini backed him on that point, saying that "it is in our common interest for Europe to have stronger ties with Israel so that Europe will be able to play a greater role" in the Middle East. AP contributed to this report.