Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Monday he hopes to bring Israel into the European Union, at the start of a three-day visit to the Jewish state.

Berlusconi brought eight top ministers for a joint cabinet meeting with their Israeli counterparts. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cabinet ministers and a military honour guard welcomed the Italian delegation.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, left, are seen during a welcome ceremony at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on Monday. ((Debbie Hill/Associated Press))

Under Berlusconi's leadership, Italy has become one of Israel's strongest allies in Europe. Berlusconi's efforts to strengthen ties with Israel followed decades of a pro-Arab tilt by previous Italian governments.

At the same time, Italy also remains Iran's largest trading partner within the EU. Israel considers Iran to be its greatest threat, accusing it of trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, but its president has repeatedly referred to Israel's eventual destruction.

Close trade ties

Italy says it will act responsibly if new sanctions are imposed on Iran despite the vast interests of Italian companies there. Italy has indicated that halting Iranian nuclear ambitions will take precedence over commercial considerations.

Speaking on arrival in Israel, Berlusconi told Netanyahu that "my greatest desire, as long as I am a protagonist in politics, is to bring Israel into membership of the European Union."

Israel has close trade ties with the EU but is not pressing to join the bloc.

The European Commission was unavailable for comment about Israel's possible inclusion into union.

The EU has had a tricky relationship with prospective members around the Mediterranean in the past. It turned down Morocco as a candidate in 1987, saying it was not European, and has stalled negotiations with Turkey for 23 years.

Some EU nations, such as France, firmly oppose Turkey's membership on the grounds that it is also "not European."

Netanyahu embraced his guest warmly, calling his arrival a "historic visit."

"Not every day do we get the privilege to host one of Israel's greatest friends, a brave leader who is a great fighter for freedom and an enthusiastic supporter of peace," Netanyahu said of Berlusconi.

'Foundations for Western culture'

Netanyahu said the sides expected to sign a series of agreements during the visit, on subjects including energy, the environment and health. He also spoke of the historic common bond between the two nations.

"I can think of very few nations who have made such a contribution to Western culture as our two nations. In Rome and Jerusalem, the foundations for Western culture were laid," he said.

Berlusconi echoed the same theme, expressing his "pride of the Judeo-Christian culture that formed the base of Western civilization."

Berlusconi's three-day visit is his first overseas since an assailant attacked him in Milan in December and broke his nose and two teeth. His schedule includes a stop at Israel's Holocaust memorial, meetings with leaders and the joint cabinet session.

Berlusconi said the next joint session will take place in Italy.