Congratulazioni, Signor Berlusconi

This week's elections in Italy promise to change its relations with Israel.

Silvio Berlusconi 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Silvio Berlusconi 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
This week's dramatic elections in Italy promise to redraw that country's political map and to change its relations with Israel - both to auspicious effect. In electing Silvio Berlusconi to a third term as prime minister, Italians gave the flamboyant billionaire media tycoon a decisive victory over Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome and leader of the leftist Democratic Party. In so doing, they also gave the center-right an unassailable majority in parliament. This represents a reversal of the last elections, two years ago, in which an aggregate of leftist parties led by Romano Prodi edged out the coalition fronted by Berlusconi's Forza Italia party by the narrowest margin in Italian history (.06 percent). More importantly, this week's elections swept away Italy's radical Left - the Communist and Green parties - which two years ago gained over 10% of the vote. For the first time since the fall of the Fascist dictatorship, Italy's parliament will not have a single "red" legislator on its benches. Not that Berlusconi, 71, won't face immediate tests. The country's Left disdains him as a corrupt monopolist and reactionary clown. And he faces an unwieldy public deficit, an unsustainable pension system, an aging work force, a steady deterioration in the national infrastructure, and a national airline, Alitalia, in chaos. And yet in once again casting their lot with Berlusconi, with all of his faults, Italians have expressed the hope that the realignment over which he now presides may redress Italy's chronic political instability and volatility. Prodi's government survived for only 20 months. Berlusconi's new government, by contrast, the 62nd since World War II, should endure much longer. "I will govern for five years," Berlusconi declared after his victory. The pledge might not be an empty one, for the simple reason that the latest elections represent a crucial step toward a two-bloc political division in the Anglo-American style. The number of parties with seats in the lower house is expected to drop from 26 to only 6. ITALY'S EXPERIENCE, however, for all its peculiarities, is of far more than local interest. For one thing, the country of 58 million is almost certain to take a more pro-Western, pro-NATO, and pro-Israel orientation than under Prodi's administration. The departure of Prodi's foreign minister, Massimo d'Alema, who once referred to Israel as a "terror state," is but the first sign of the shifting wind. The main cause for optimism in Jerusalem is Berlusconi's long-standing warmth for Israel. The new Italian Right, led by his Forza Italia, has to a large extent legitimized pro-Israeli positions in Italy. His last administration, it will be recalled, spearheaded the campaign to force the European Union to list Hamas as a terror organization. "I feel the suffering of the people in Israel personally," he told Yediot Aharonot last month. As The Jerusalem Postreported yesterday, he will be the first Italian prime minister to have a parliament member who speaks fluent Hebrew (Fiamma Nirenstein). And Berlusconi announced Monday night that his first state visit will be to Israel, to help celebrate its 60th anniversary and to support what he called "the only real democracy in the Middle East." (President Shimon Peres took his first visit abroad as head of state to Rome.) THE NEW wind blows in at a propitious time. Germany has just handed over the command of UNIFIL's Maritime Task Force to the European Maritime Force that is currently led by Italy. In patrolling Lebanon's 200 kilometers of coastline, Italy now carries prime responsibility for preventing Iranian weapons reaching Hizbullah's hands by sea. Cultural relations between the two countries are already healthy. Some 70 Israeli authors are translated into Italian, for instance, and this spring's international book fair in Turin chose Israel as its guest of honor. But Israel's political relationship with this critical European ally needs to be deepened, and the time for that deepening is now. We hope and believe that Italy under its new leadership will give firmer backing in international forums to Israel, that Rome will play a role in building warmer relations between Israel and the European Union generally, and that we can henceforth more concertedly grapple with our common threats and challenges.