Former Italian prime minister, ‘great friend of Israel,’ dead at 86

Berlusconi “was a great friend of Israel and stood by us at all times,” Netanyahu said.

By Associated Press and World Israel News Staff

Sylvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving prime minister and a friend of Israel, passed away Monday at the age of 86.

Berlusconi, who served as premier during 1994-1995, 2001-2006 and 2008-2011, was admitted to the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan on Friday, his second recent hospitalization for treatment of chronic leukemia. His body was driven away from the hospital Monday afternoon in a black van, heading toward his villa outside the city.

A onetime cruise ship crooner, Berlusconi used his television networks and immense wealth to launch his long political career, inspiring both loyalty and loathing.

To admirers, the three-time premier was a capable and charismatic statesman who sought to elevate Italy on the world stage. To critics, he was a populist who threatened to undermine democracy by wielding political power as a tool to enrich himself and his businesses.

His Forza Italia political party was a coalition partner with current Premier Giorgia Meloni, a right-wing leader who came to power last year, although he held no position in the government. Berlusconi’s friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a source of tension between him and Meloni.

Berlusconi had refused to recognize a Palestinian state without Israel’s consent.

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Addressing the Knesset in February 2010, the late Italian leader said that “the safeguarding of Israel’s safety and its right to exist as a Jewish state is an ethical choice and a moral obligation, against the possibility of the return of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and a loss of memory by the West…

“Italy is like a big brother to Israel. We are fighting and will continue to fight together with you against every instance of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world.”

According to a report by the World Jewish Congress at the time, “Berlusconi was moved to tears when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu praised the courage the Italian leader’s mother Rosa had shown during World War II, the moment she saw a German policeman trying to arrest a Jewish girl on a train in Milan.”

As told by Netanyahu during Berlusconi’s Knesset visit, “The Italian woman, who was then eight months pregnant, stood between the policeman and the girl. And without a grain of fear, she confronted the German policeman and said to him: ‘You can kill me but look at the faces of the people on the train, I promise you they won’t let you get out alive. With this firm statement, the Italian woman saved the Jewish girl and lit, if only for a moment, a ray of humanistic light and bravery in the great darkness that pervaded all of Europe. That brave woman was called Rosa, and one of her sons is called Silvio Berlusconi, today the prime minister of Italy.”

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“I was deeply saddened by the passing of Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and to the people of Italy,” Netanyahu said in a statement Monday.

“Silvio was a great friend of Israel and stood by us at all times,” he added. “Rest in peace, my friend.”