As missiles struck near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Minister for Foreign Affairs Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata – Ambassador of Italy to Israel from 2002 to 2004 – contacted both his Egyptian colleague Kemal Amr and the head of Israeli diplomacy Avigdor Lieberman. Like the rest of Europe, Italy is watching the flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Israeli political elections near, with deep concern.
Mr. Minister, what is the scenario now in the Middle East?
«We are very concerned with this massive missile offensive of Gaza’s. Israel’s reaction has been very tough, although it was amply foreseen; and while the Arabs are talking about a disproportionate show of force, it seems pointless to discuss what is disproportionate or what isn’t: what is essential is to stop the violence and ease tensions».
«The role of Egypt is very important, and I pointed out the EU’s expectations to Amr who, in turn, intends to play a dynamic role in reviving the talks, given that we are the PNA’s top contributor and are also involved in cooperation efforts in Gaza. The latest events place the stability of the entire region at risk, especially at such a delicate moment for the UN: the PNA is to introduce a resolution for recognition of Palestine as a non-member State of the United Nations, which could come up for a vote by the end of the month».
With what result?
«It is very probable that it will pass, an eventuality that worries the EU: the resolution could block negotiations, since it will be perceived as external intervention in bilateral negotiations. And, certainly, one wonders also about the coincidence of this initiative with the crescendo in Hamas attacks, which could be aimed at demonstrating a greater ability for impact in the region».
There are Italian cooperation workers in Gaza right now.
«Yes, eight will be leaving and two intend to stay. The Crisis Unit is monitoring their situation closely, as it is that of Italian nationals living in the Israeli cities bordering on the Strip».
What role might the U.S. have in resolving the crisis?
«One of the reasons for which the re-election of Barack Obama has restored my confidence is precisely his commitment to the peace process, which can now be demonstrated in the form of a new initiative, which Brussels too awaits. We must not forget that on 22 January Israel goes back to the polls, a couple of days after Obama’s official inauguration at the white House. With the start of the new year, therefore, the Americans will probably redirect their attention to the peace process. We Europeans agree on the unsustainability as much of the status quo as of the negotiation stalemate. The current Israeli government is of a different mind, viewing an unknown future as a threat».
Let’s stay on the U.S. Some observers have noted that the European crisis was not a concern during the electoral campaign. What will happen now?
«In reality, the White House has been very watchful of the euro crisis, and Obama and Monti have a close and positive relationship which, in reality, extends to all the European leaders. Also because, while Romney was very clear on fiscal policy and liberalisation, he was not so clear on relations with the EU».
Meanwhile, budget cuts are being discussed in Brussels.
«Yes, Great Britain would like to retain the payment advantages it has been enjoying since the days of Margaret Thatcher. At the moment, discussions concern overall financing. Being a net contributor, Italy is very attentive to how the ceiling on cohesion, research and southern partnership funds will be distributed, and if negotiations are not completed within the year it won’t be a tragedy».
The crisis weighs heavily also on our institutions. Just think how you are being forced to close some foreign missions while the Regions retain their offices?
«The foreign ministry has made enormous sacrifices in order not to have to close any missions. One example should suffice: we have managed to keep our consulate in Koper, Slovenia; as we are also contributing to business development in Asia and the Mediterranean. Certainly, we are suffering: two years ago seven managerial facilities were cut, over the past eight years the block on turn-over has reduced personnel by 30% and our budget has dropped from €2.5 to €1.6 billion in the space of just a few years».
The rumours now are that Obama and Merkel are pushing for a Monti ticket in the upcoming elections.
«Forty years of diplomatic activity have taught me not to be conditioned by talk of external influences. The response will come from Italians at the moment they cast their vote, and from the ability of political forces to be prepared for the elections».