By Piero Ignazi (for Safe Democracy)

Piero Ignazi describes how the crisis in the Middle East tested the orientation and decision-making readiness of the newly transformed Italian foreign policy under the Romano Prodi government. The new, more active approach of the Prodi government to practice equal favoritism of all parties concerned, helped greatly to reach a ceasefire to the conflict in Lebanon, and to agree on the deployment of peace-keeping troops, which Italy will help lead. Italy‘s active position has met with overwhelming support by a majority of countries including, surprisingly enough, the US and Israel, raising the question as to whether this success was simply a fluke of circumstance, or whether it represents the beginning of a more assertive foreign policy that will bring Italy greater status in the international community.

Piero Ignazi is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Bologna. He is graduated at the University of Bologna and attended graduated studies at the European University Institute in Florence, and at the MIT. He is the Director of the Master in International Relations, University of Bologna. His field of research concerns mainly the party and party system all over Europe with particular emphasis on the right-extremist parties.

THE CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST tested the Prodi government’s foreign policy orientations and decision-making readiness.

As for its policy orientation, the Italian government clearly expressed a new approach vis-à-vis the Middle-East scenario.

It rejected the unbalanced approach of Berlusconi’s government to unilaterally support Israel and moved toward a more traditional policy of equal favoritism of both parties in the Israeli-Palestinian rift.

This change –or return to old times-came as no surprise since it was clearly expressed in the centre-left electoral manifesto; but the rapidity and consistency with which it was executed was somewhat shocking.

The decision to forge strong relationships with both parties was a precondition for the important role played by the Italian government in the recent crisis in Lebanon. And despite a few inopportune declarations made by government officials, the Israeli government cooperated rather well with the new Italian approach. The PLO Presidency and the Arab nations also expressed their appreciation for the new orientation.

Relying on this more balanced, and therefore more solid, position (acknowledged and accepted by the US administration as well) the Italian government began to set a new precedent for itself in active participation in international decision-making.

The meeting in Rome promoted by the Italian government was the first step towards the calling of a cease-fire and a political resolution. Even though there were no visible results immediately following the summit, Italian diplomacy was not discouraged. And with the energetic impulse of the minister of Foreign Affairs Massimo D’Alema and the connections of Prime Minister Prodi (thanks to his former service in the Presidency of the EU Commission), the Italian government successfully promoted and sustained initiatives for a resolution of the conflict.

The most relevant success of this policy became clear in the aftermath of the cease-fire. The Italian government immediately expressed its availability to implement UN Security Council resolution 1701 with a large participation of its own troops. It maintained this decision even after the sudden French volte-face spurring a mountain of criticism from domestic opposition and perplexing analysts worldwide.

In truth, the only thing that forced France to fully participate in the UN peacekeeping mission in the first place was the outright stubborn will of the UN to deploy a large contingent in Lebanon and the EU’s call for a meeting of foreign ministries.

But what was most remarkable about this foreign policy change was the overwhelming support by both Israel and the US for Italy’s decision to participate in and lead the UNIFIL II. Israel and the US are the two countries whose foreign policies should have been most endangered by the Prodi government’s transformation.

The endorsements of the US and Israel, as well as the involvement of the EU in the military mission, represent a landmark for the Italian government.

The question is whether this success was the by-product of exceptional circumstances, and in particular of the surprising harmony among the Prime minister and the Foreign Affairs and the Defense ministries, or whether it highlights the beginning of a more assertive foreign policy that will lead Italy to a higher status in international politics.

Safe Democracy would like to invite you to subscribe to the weekly electronic newsletter, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).