ROME – Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi told a visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exactly what he wanted to hear Monday, rejecting recognition of a Palestinian state by the U.N. General Assembly and insisting peace must come through negotiations.
Netanyahu was in Italy to rally European opposition to plans by the Palestinians to ask the U.N. to recognize a Palestinian state in September. Israel, backed by the U.S., opposes such a move, saying it will only push peace farther away.
Berlusconi echoed Netanyahu when asked about the U.N. statehood recognition at a press conference following the signature of several bilateral agreements.
"We don't believe a unilateral solution can help peace," Berlusconi said. "I believe peace can only be reached with a common effort, that is, with negotiations."
Italy is one of Israel's closest friends in Europe, a fact stressed by both leaders Monday. "We have no better friend," Netanyahu told the Italian leader.
Netanyahu said peace cannot be imposed by the outside or by "one-sided U.N. resolutions," which he said would not only violate previous accords but would harden the Palestinian position and make peace even more difficult.
"Peace requires mutual compromises: Palestinian compromises, Israeli compromises. We both compromise. We're prepared to do to that, but to do that you need a negotiation," Netanyahu said.
The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down last September, just three weeks after their launch, with the expiration of a limited Israeli freeze on Jewish settlement construction.
The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating as long as Israel continues to build homes in enclaves inside the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- captured areas the Palestinians claim for their future state.
The Palestinians say they too would prefer a negotiated agreement. But if talks remain stalled, they say they will turn to the U.N. for recognition in September. The move is not expected to immediately change the situation on the ground, but the Palestinians believe a strong U.N. endorsement will isolate Israel internationally and put heavy pressure on the Israelis to withdraw from occupied territory.
Seeking to break the deadlock, both the U.S. and France have floated proposals in recent weeks to restart talks by focusing on the borders between Israel and a future Palestine. Both proposals say Israel should return to its pre-1967 lines, meaning a withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, albeit with some modifications based on negotiated land swaps.
Neither Berlusconi nor Netanyahu spoke publicly about the details of the proposals.
The French proposal calls for relaunching talks at a peace conference. And Berlusconi even offered to host peace talks in Erice, Sicily, if both sides would come to the table. Italy, he said, would pick up the bill.
"We expect it would be a long-term negotiation," Berlusconi said.
The rival Palestinian leaderships, Fatah and Hamas, are due to meet Tuesday in Cairo to begin negotiations on forming a unity government, a prelude to taking their cause to the U.N. this fall.
Berlusconi said Italy was waiting to see what kind of government emerges, but stressed that the Palestinian leadership must recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, must accept previous peace accords and must renounce violence.
Hamas has refused to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Netanyahu also warned about the risk Iran poses if it acquires nuclear weapons and the continued uncertainties about the final results of the string of popular uprisings in the Arab world.
"It's not obvious where the Arab Spring will go, but I will say this, that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, the Arab Spring could well turn into an Iranian winter," Netanyahu said.