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Italian reflections: A journey between Bibi and Berlusconi

A Venice palazzio reflected in the Canal Grande (photographer unknown)

After three days in Amman, my beloved Itka said: “That’s it, I’ve had enough. I must go somewhere where women wear miniskirts.”

We left Israel for Jordan hoping to find a cheap flight somewhere further afield, but flights to the lands of miniskirts, of saris or of kimonos all turned out to be full. Eid al-Fitr recently ended, and just as the Jewish holidays made flying out of Israel difficult, so did the Eid trap us in Jordan. Finally we gave up and headed home, crossed the border at the Jordan Valley crossing and gave El-Al one last desperate call.

There was indeed one flight, leaving within three hours and going to Rome. The return would be from Marseilles. We decided to chance it and try hitching between the two cities. Upon arrival we instantly experienced the tragedy of the Israeli existence: We feel far more at home in the nearby continent than we do in our own region. Europe has its share of hijabs, of course, but at least for us it is far more calming to see those among the heads of many liberated, empowered women, one option out of many.

This wasn’t, however, the last political observation to be made on this trip. Wherever you go – there you are and each place provides new perspective on home. This was my first proper visit to Italy since the Nineties, an opportunity to evaluate what the Berlusconi regime has done to this country. My own land is run by a Prime – Minister and former minister of the treasury whose approach to the economy is somewhat Berlusconiesque. What will Israel look like after a decade of right wing government?

To say that Rome doesn’t shine would be an understatement. I stood baffled outside its Termini station. Nothing seem to have changed over the years, nothing new was built, things simply aged and the cityscape seems today beat and sorrowful.

The intersection of metro lines beneath the station is even worse. The corridors are damp and dirty. The low ceilings seem to be falling apart, the walls are covered with moist fungus and the corridors are labyrinthine and confusing. “It looks like there’s minimum investment in public infrastructure around here” I told Itka. “I bet you the posh neighborhoods look wonderful though.”

Hitch-hiking allowed us to interrogate Italians about their leadership. Not one of them was truly fond of it, though all were polite and avoided expressing overt bitterness. A sugeon in southern Tuscany spoke about budget cuts in the health and education systems. “The system is struggling to maximise what money it still has,” he said, and quickly added: “We’re coping, no worries.”

Where did the rest of the money go? A Ligurian gentleman, working in a pharmaceutical company, volunteered an answer while driving us over the magnificent mountains surrounding Genova. He spoke of “Grandi Opere,” “big projects,” which are Berlusconi’s hobby. One such project is the bridge leading to Sicily. It is indeed an investment in public infrastructure, but one which detracts money from the Rome metro, among other things. Is it as essential? It’s certainly more ambitious, visible and romantic.

“Another project is the high velocity train,” said the Ligurian. “That’s a good thing, but Berlusconi attracts so much fire with his other follies that the leftist organizations won’t even consider his better proposals. They interfered so much with the rail construction that the whole thing had to be dropped. Now we have neither a good education system, nor a good health system, nor high velocity train.”

He added that the government’s fiscal policies badly hurt smaller businesses. “I work for an international company,” he said, “I don’t have another option, the smaller local ones are falling apart.”

I looked down the slopes to the sea that lies between our two lands and for a moment saw them both reflected in it. Italy and Israel share something beyond miniskirts. We both live under aloof leaderships far more protective of money moguls than of those still struggling to come up in the world. Israel has its own grandi opere. Last night the settlement freeze ended and Netanyahu got back to his grand settlement project. The money that goes there could have gone elsewhere. Rome may have a decrepit metro system. Tel Aviv doesn’t even have one. A decade from now, who knows what else it won’t have.

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Illustrations: Eran Mendel