D’Alema’s comments on Hamas cause a diplomatic row

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Italy’s foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, has enraged the Israeli ambassador by demanding that Israel should start negotiations with Hamas. With the election campaign so far being dominated by social and economic issues, the controversy not only brings foreign policy back to the front pages but also serves to underline the contrasting approaches of Veltroni’s PD and Berlusconi’s PDL to  international politics.

In an interview with the news channel Sky Tg 24, the foreign minister said that since Hamas controls an important part of Palestinian territory, it will be necessary to involve the movement in peace negotiations. D’Alema also stressed that Hamas is a representative of the Palestinian people as it won the elections of 2006. He added: “Who do negotiate with? With your enemies. With your friends you don’t need to negotiate.”

In the past, D’Alema’s remarks on the Middle East had already caused some heated arguments but the diplomatic repercussions had never been so huge. This time, the response by Gideon Meir, the Israeli ambassador, was furious: “Who asks us to open negotiations with Hamas, in reality asks us to measure the size of our own coffin … For as long as Hamas does not change its position and does not accept the conditions set by the international community, asking us to start a dialogue with this terrorist organization means blocking the negotiations between Israel and Abu Mazen.” He also said that “peace is made with the enemy but with an enemy that desires peace.”

The controversy was intensified by Hamas’s enthusiastic reaction to D’Alema’s interview. Ismail Haniyeh, its leader said that he “appreciated” the comments and even interpreted them to mean that the European Union is “improving” its position. However, the European Union still regards Hamas as a terrorist organization and D’Alema’s position is hardly shared by other European governments.

The incident puts the spotlight on the different views taken by the centre-left and centre-right on international affairs. Whereas the Berlusconi government that ruled Italy from 2001 until 2006, maintained an excellent relationship with both Israel and the United States, the outgoing coalition headed by Romano Prodi, was often critical of these two countries in its Middle East policy. The clash was most visible when during George W. Bush’s visit to Rome last June, the American president was received by Prodi while members of the ruling coalition participated in a street protest against him.

In case of a PDL victory in April, it is clear that Italy will try to improve relations with the US and Israel again. Furthermore, a change of government could have consequences for the Italian presence in Afghanistan. While Prodi kept Italy’s troops in the country, he had no unanimous support for this commitment in his coalition and had to rely on some votes from the opposition on one occasion. A centre-right government would not only be solidly in favour of the Italian presence in Afghanistan but might actually increase it. There is also a possibility that it would agree to move Italian troops to more dangerous areas in the country as demanded by some NATO partners.

There has been much talk about the transformation of the political landscape after the foundation of the PD and the formation of the PDL. Some people doubted that the two alignments represent clearly distinct choices and wondered whether their respective election manifestos do not share certain similarities. The controversy that D’Alema has kicked off about Hamas and Israel reminds everyone that at least in the area of foreign policy the differences are easy to see.

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