JERUSALEM (AFP) – Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi arrived in Israel on Monday for a historic first joint meeting of the Israeli and Italian cabinets.
Berlusconi was warmly received by an honour guard at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, ahead of a state dinner.
"I have the privilege of hosting one of the greatest friends of Israel," Netanyahu said, calling the three-day visit "historic."
Eight Italian ministers travelling with Berlusconi will hold a joint cabinet meeting with their Israeli counterparts on Tuesday, and the Italian premier will address Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on Wednesday.
While Israel's relations with some European nations have been frosty over the conflict with the Palestinians, ties with Italy have been much warmer, spurred by the friendship between the two leaders.
After taking office early last year, Netanyahu made his first European visit to Italy.
Berlusconi on Monday spoke of his "great friendship and love for Israel and its people," and reiterated his belief that Israel's future belongs with the European Union.
"My greatest desire, as long as I am a protagonist in politics, is to bring Israel into membership of the European Union," he said.
However, he had expressed some criticism ahead of the visit, telling an Israeli newspaper that "Israel's settlement policy could be an obstacle to peace."
"I would like to say to the people and government of Israel, as a friend, with my hand on my heart, that persisting with this policy is a mistake," he told Haaretz.
At the same time, Berlusconi praised Netanyahu's "courage" for imposing in November a 10-month freeze on new construction in settlements in the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinians have refused to relaunch peace talks with Israel without a full freeze, and said Netanyahu's limited moratorium was insufficient because it excludes east Jerusalem, public buildings and projects already under way.
Nearly half a million Israelis live in more than 120 settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.