The Italian political crisis – what to bear in mind in Jerusalem

" spite of his support for Israel, many feel uncomfortable with Salvini’s populist, quasi-fascist, anti-immigration, anti-European attitude."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, December 12, 2018 (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, December 12, 2018
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
For the past 14 months, Italy has been governed by an unprecedented populist coalition. However, the political romance between the nationalist League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement quickly wore out. In the 2018 national elections, the Movement won 32% of the votes, the League 17%. A year later, in the European elections, the League won 34% of the votes, and the Movement 17%.
The government officially collapsed on August 20, when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced his resignation. It is still too early to know whether another coalition will be formed (most likely between the Five Stars and the center-left Democratic Party) or if the nation will face new elections in the fall, something that has not happened in a century.
Here are four issues worth keeping in mind:
Italy and Israel
Italy and Israel entertain very solid relations. Their commercial interchange last year was worth €3,331 billion. In the first three months of 2019, the value increased by 1.6% compared to the same period in 2018 (from €843 million to €857). In February, Israel announced it would purchase seven training helicopters from Italian defense contractor Leonardo in a multi-billion euro deal, and in return for the Israeli purchase, Italy committed to acquiring defense and security materials from the Israeli government within a similar scope.
Since the first bilateral agreement for industrial, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries was signed at the beginning of the 2000s, more than 100 projects have been funded and established, including conferences and exchanges between universities and research centers.
As Italy’s Ambassador to Israel Gianluigi Benedetti explains, this is also a uniquely exciting time for the commercial cooperation between the two countries because Italian companies have a keen interest in innovating, while Israeli start-ups are looking for opportunities to grow and penetrate bigger markets. The benefit is mutual. This general trend is very unlikely to change, no matter who will govern the country next.
The populists and Israel
Both the League and the Five Star Movement fall under the category of populist movements. Sharing a general anti-establishment and “Italians first” approach had allowed them to work together. However, the League is first and foremost a far-right nationalist party, which has put anti-immigration policies at the top of their political agenda. The Five Star, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo a little more than a decade ago, has a tradition of supporting policies usually considered far-left, such as a radical environmental agenda which includes a steadfast opposition to several key infrastructure projects.
From this perspective, it is interesting to analyze the parties’ attitude toward Israel. The League’s number one Matteo Salvini belongs to the group of Right/far-right politicians who, in Europe and around the world, are ready to declare themselves staunch supporters of Jerusalem and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In December, Salvini visited Israel in his official capacity of minister of interior. His trip included a visit to the Lebanese border, where he condemned the infiltration attempts carried out by Hezbollah, calling them terrorists. His remarks were harshly criticized by the Five Star Minister of Defense Elisabetta Trenta.
Since 2006, Italian troops are stationed in the region within the UNIFIL mission to prevent another conflict. Trenta stated that Salvini’s words put Italian soldiers in danger. This episode can help better understanding where the Five Star Movement stands on Israel. In 2012, its founder Grillo told the Israel newspaper Yediot Aharonot that “everything we know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Europe comes from a press agency called Memri, with the Mossad behind it.”
In 2014, two of the Five Star Movement political leaders, Alessandro Di Battista and Manlio Di Stefano stated that Israel “was carrying out a genocide in Gaza.” One of the Five Star undersecretaries in the current government, Lorenzo Fioramonti expressed his support for the BDS (after his appointment he retracted his remarks).
In the past two years, something seems to have changed within the Movement, in part because the voices more critical against Israel have been pushed to the margins of the party. In July, an event called “The relations between Italy and Israel between geopolitics, economy and innovation” featuring the Israeli Ambassador to Rome Ofer Sachs was organized by two Five Star MPs.
The Left and Israel
For decades, Italy was known for its bipartisan support of Palestinians and the Arab world. In the early 2000s, the center-right parties became more pro-Israel, a trend that in recent years has spread to center-left parties as well. One of the leaders of this transformation was former Democratic Party secretary and prime minister Matteo Renzi, who is still an influential political figure. In addition, the current secretary Nicola Zingaretti, who is generally considered more to the Left than Renzi within the party, has also shown a great deal of support towards Israel.
“Someone who harms Israel, harms every single one of us,” he said at the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel in Rome in 2018. Moreover, Zingaretti comes from a Roman Jewish family. His great-grandmother died in Auschwitz. His mother miraculously escaped deportation with her parents. The chances of seeing the Italian center-left going in the direction of the UK Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour at the moment seems non-existent.
Where Italian Jews stand
The Italian Jewish community’s tiny number (less than 30,000 people) does not make them a factor in deciding election results. Nonetheless, there are several issues for which Jewish institutions are considered an essential partner by Italian authorities, including the remembrance of the Holocaust and the fight against intolerance and racism. A 2013 survey suggested that the majority of Italian Jews identify as center-right or right-wing. However, even among them and in spite of his support for Israel, many feel uncomfortable with Salvini’s populist, quasi-fascist, anti-immigration, anti-European attitude.
“We have the duty to be vigilant so that such events don’t happen again, and to speak up against new dangerous signs that are emerging in the most alarming way also because of the irresponsibility of those who in the highest levels of our institutions keep on stoking the fires of horrendous prejudices,” the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni, said in a statement after Salvini employed the term “zingaraccia” (a somewhat equivalent of “dirty gypsy”) in one of his tweets. Experience suggests that the vast majority of Italian Jews have also been deeply critical of the Five Star Movement. Finally, Italian Jews share all Italian citizens’ deep concern about the economic crisis that seems to have hit the country one more time, while the ghost of another recession looms.