ROME – Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the observer state, arrived in Rome on Sunday, and on Monday he is scheduled to meet with top Italian government officials. The visit is an expression of Abbas' gratitude to the Italian government, which abandoned the tenets of the Oslo agreement and supported a unilateral Palestinian move. Abbas' visit to the Eternal City symbolizes the final act of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti's shameful play.
One-hundred and thirty-eight countries supported a Palestinian state as an observer in the UN, but Abbas did not choose to visit each and every one of these countries to say thank you. He is visiting Rome because Italy's support surprised him, and he plans to take full advantage of this support.
Italy's vote in favor of granting the Palestinians non-member observer status was undoubtedly the most surprising. It was not the essence of the anti-Israel vote that was surprising, but the manner in which Italy changed its policy. Friendly nations are not obligated to agree on everything, but they are obligated to decency.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Italian Foreign Minster Giulio Terzi signaled to his then-Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman that Italy plans to abstain. Like thieves in the night, just hours before the vote, Italy changed its position. The Italian FM, who declared during his visit to Israel in September that he was opposed to the Palestinians' unilateral UN bid because it "runs the risk of polarizing the debate," found out that his positions are not taken into account when it comes to Italy's foreign policy. Prime Minister Monti took the reins and decided to erase in one day an entire decade that was characterized by a balanced foreign policy toward Israel and the Arab world, in the spirit of the policy that was implemented by his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi.
Terzi discovered that he was the most irrelevant minister in the Italian cabinet, but even the calls for his resignation became irrelevant when Monti announced a week later his plans to resign over the crisis in the coalition.
Monti's decision, which was backed by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, was based on domestic issues. While the prime minister's visit to Qatar on the eve of the UN vote and Italy's need for the Arab world's support during the economic crisis had some bearing on the decision, the main motives for the move, which was dubbed by friends of Israel in Italy as a "betrayal," was Monti's need to detach himself from Berlusconi's image as a friend of Israel and his desire to please the leader of the leftist Democratic Party, Pier Luigi Bersani, who is leading in the polls and may determine Monti's future after the elections in February.
Italian officials vehemently deny that the change in policy was aimed at hurting Israel. They claim that it was incumbent upon Italy to embrace Abbas in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense and amid Hamas' growing influence in the West Bank – for the benefit of Israel and as a way of promoting the dialogue between the sides. They ignore Abbas' hate speech at the UN, but stress the criticism against Netanyahu's government for putting the Palestinian conflict on the back burner.
Abbas is in Rome because he is sensing what many Italian Jews are also sensing: That Italy's support for the Palestinians marks a turning point. Italy may even go 30 years into the past, to the days when the PLO operated in Rome as though the city was its home base. The Jewish ghetto associates the Catholic-Socialist duo Monti and Bersani with another duo from the same background: Prime ministers and coalition partners from the 1980s Giulio Andreotti and Bettino Craxi. Then, like today, the two pulled out the "Israel and the Jews" card and criticized them due to a lack of agreement on socio-economic issues.
As part of its close friendship with Israel, Italy succeeded in upgrading its standing in the international arena: It represents Israel in NATO; its commanders were in charge of the forces at the Rafah crossing and Lebanon; and preferred relations with the US were established as well. This model should also be reexamined following the upcoming elections in Israel and Italy.