Visit to Italy overshadowed by Berlusconi scandals; Iran, Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy to top agenda.
By HERB KEINON
Following trips to Egypt, Jordan and the US, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday will make his first visit to Europe since assuming office in March, for talks in two countries whose leaders are among the friendliest on the continent: Italy and France.
A diplomatic official said it was no coincidence that the prime minister's first European stop would be Rome, as Italy's premier, Silvio Berlusconi, has been a staunch ally inside the EU.
The official said it was just "bad luck" that the visit was taking place in the midst of a salacious sex scandal swirling around Berlusconi, a scandal that is eating away at his credibility and will detract from Netanyahu's visit and any gestures of Italian-Israeli friendship the Italian leader may have wanted to bestow on the prime minister.
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Berlusconi and other top Italian leaders on Tuesday, and then proceed to Paris on Wednesday for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with whom he has established a close relationship over the years. Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in Paris on Thursday.
Government sources said the situation in Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, and bilateral issues would top Netanyahu's agenda both in Rome and in Paris.
Regarding Iran, the prime minister is expected to tell his interlocutors that the ongoing protests, and the methods used by the government to quell them, show the true face of the Islamic republic and that these events should convince the international community of the urgent need to keep the regime from gaining nuclear weapons.
In Rome, he is to press Berlusconi to limit Italy's trade relations with Iran. That trade totals some $6 billion annually.
In both capitals, Netanyahu is also expected to expound on the principles he laid out last week at Bar-Ilan University for moving the diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward: a demilitarized Palestinian state living next to a Jewish state. Netanyahu's speech was not enthusiastically endorsed in either France or Italy, with questions being asked in both capitals about the definition of a Jewish state as well as the likelihood that the Palestinians would ever accept a demilitarized one.
Netanyahu, who said in his speech that Israel would insist on international recognition and guarantees of the principle of a demilitarized Palestine, is expected to spell this out in greater detail in Rome and Paris.
He is likely to hear Sarkozy pitch the idea of an international peace conference, something he has been talking about for months and which he is very keen on hosting. There has been speculation in recent weeks that an international conference will be one of the elements US President Barack Obama pushes when he presents his plan for moving the diplomatic process forward, something expected within the next few weeks.
In both capitals, the prime minister is also expected to talk about Israel-EU bilateral relations, which suffered a setback in recent months as a result of Operation Cast Lead and a perception in much of Europe that the Netanyahu government was not interested in moving the diplomatic process forward.
Of no less importance than his meeting with Berlusconi and Sarkozy will be Netanyahu's meeting Thursday with Mitchell, where the two are expected to continue looking for a solution to the settlement construction issue. While the US is demanding a complete settlement freeze, Israel has said it has no intention of stopping all Jewish building beyond the Green Line. Attempts to bridge that gap have been going on for weeks.
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