Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Berlusconi Visits Israel, Obama Does Not

Still waiting on the Dershowitz post. It will hopefully be out in a few days, but at this point lingering on it seems a bit foolish.

So, back in reality, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been making some very interesting comments during his visit to Israel. He's mentioned hoping to see Israel join the EU, and supports sanctions against Iran. PM Netanyahu called Berlusconi a "true friend" of Israel and literally said "we love you" during a toast to the Prime Minister.

Now that Berlusconi is in Bethlehem, he has drawn a link between mourning victims of the Holocaust and mourning victims in Gaza (This after he visited Yad Vashem and laid a wreath there).

It seems Berlusconi has taken an interest in playing a more prominent role in the Israeli-Arab conflict than Italy has generally taken in the past. A European country talking about Israeli EU citizenship is a very big deal in Israel, and his comments supporting Iran sanctions are also likely to play extremely well among the Israeli public. Of course, what remains to be seen is what concrete steps Italy will take to support negotiations, though Berlusconi spoke in favor of a return to them.

What the visit also shows though is the power an in-person visit can have to the region. President Obama has not visited Israel or the Palestinian territories since being inaugurated, a move which has had significant effects on his popularity in Israel and thus his ability to get anything done there. While Obama has done some shifting and renegotiating of the American posture on the conflict, he has yet to seriously indicate any plans to visit Israel. What Obama does not understand, Berlusconi understands perfectly. People can only judge someone by the information they are given. Coverage of the US in Israel tends to be far more 2-dimensional than coverage of US news domestically (obvious, but worth mentioning). An Obama visit to Israel may not create 60% approval ratings, but there's very little president Obama could say in Israel that would make his approval ratings there worse. A visit to the region has the potential to rejuvinate US-Israel relations. On the strategy side, and Obama visit to Israel would send a strong signal to Iran that Israel and the US form a united front. And visit to the Palestinian territories would also help cut the losses Obama has faced in public opinion since the zenith of his Cairo speech. Palestinians place a significant amount of hope in Obama to help them create a brighter future. The support Obama garners in a visit to Ramallah or Bethlehem could end up playing a key role in the political capitol both the US and the PA have vis-a-vis a final status agreement.

Yalla Obama.

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