In November 2012, Pierluigi Bersani, back then leader of the Italian center-left Democratic Party (PD), and Matteo Renzi, current PD leader and Italian prime minister, engaged in a live-broadcast debate before the PD primary elections.
Among the questions, the moderator asked them to share their view on the so called “Arab springs” which, two years on, had turned into violence and instability in many of the affected countries.
“The basic issue remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If a positive development doesn’t happen [in this] respect, it will be impossible to resolve anything else,” said Bersani, who then strongly advocated that Italy should vote in favor of the recognition of Palestine as “non-member observer state” at the United Nations at the vote that was set for the next day, November 29, 2012.
“I disagree on the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the key issue of that area is Iran,” Renzi replied, before expressing his perplexity about the UN vote and his support for the two-states solution, aligning himself with the position of the United States and Germany.
The difference of opinion between Bersani and Renzi (for the record, Bersani won the primaries but lost the elections) represented the difference between the old and the new generation of Italian liberals in many different areas, from the socio-economic point of view to the Middle East narrative.
On Friday, February 27, the Italian Parliament was set to vote on a bunch of non-binding resolutions concerning the recognition of Palestinian statehood. At first sight, the situation was no different from what occurred in other European countries, which had already approved similar bills.
However, what happened in Italy is unusual and particularly interesting, because is emblematic of an ongoing shift in the narrative concerning the State of Israel that is hard to find anywhere else in the international landscape.
Italy is a country that has been traditionally very sensitive to the Palestinian cause and to Arab countries’ positions, in a fairly bipartisan way. In the past few years, this has been true especially among left-wing and far-left parties.
A good example is a picture taken in summer 2006 right after the war between Israel and Hezbollah: the picture shows Italian foreign minister Massimo D’Alema, one of the main leaders of the PD, walking arm in arm with Hezbollah MP Hussein Hajj Hassan on the streets of Beirut.
A recent report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research about the perception of anti-Semitism among Jews in Italy also showed that 43 percent of the respondents agreed that left-wing political views are a source of anti-Semitism in the country today, more so than right-wing political views (32%) and Muslim extremism (17%).
The shift toward a greater focus on Israel’s concerns that is taking place in the Italian center-left is therefore especially noteworthy.
“All the initiatives on both sides which can deteriorate the cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians must be discouraged,” noted Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni in a message sent to the Federation of Italy-Israel Associations on January 23, when the vote on the recognition of the state of Palestine was initially supposed to take place in the Italian Parliament (it was then significantly postponed two times).
“On the matter of the recognition of the state of Palestine, the Italian government intends to maintain a balanced approach,” Gentiloni added.
“In our view, it represents a step, significant and meaningful, that will have to take place in the most suitable time to maximize its impact on peace negotiations.”
In the weeks preceding the vote, the PD struggled to draft a motion which, in contrast to those ones presented by far-left and right-wing parties could both send a message of attention to the Palestinian cause and give due consideration to other issues, such as Israel’s security concerns and growing sense of international isolation, and the essential need to not undermine bilateral negotiations, which are seen as the key instrument to resolve the conflict.
Other important considerations are the inopportune timing considering Israel’s upcoming elections, but also the recent surge of terrorism against Jewish targets in Europe. The far-left parties are the ones that have been pushing to have the vote at the Parliament sooner rather than later, and advocating for a full and complete recognition of Palestine regardless of what happens in terms of the bilateral peace negotiations; the Right opposes any sort of recognition of Palestinian statehood.
The mission was accomplished. The motion presented, among others by Democratic Party whip Roberto Speranza, mentions several of the issues mentioned above: for instance the complex situation of the Middle East beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the threat of international terrorism, the rise of anti-Semitism.
Moreover, the non-binding bill does not encourage Italian government to explicitly recognize Palestinian statehood, but rather “to support the goal of the constitution of a Palestinian state coexisting with the State of Israel in peace, security and prosperity, on the basis of mutual recognition and with the full mutual commitment to guarantee to the citizens to live in security and safe from any violence and acts of terrorism,” as well as “to promote the recognition of Palestine as a democratic and sovereign state with the 1967 boundaries and Jerusalem as a shared capital [in the preamble, the motion did mention also land swaps], taking into full consideration Israel’s [...] concerns and interests.”
A second motion presented by the center-right that supports the resumption of peace talks was also approved. The move of Italian Parliament received praise from the Israeli Embassy in Rome, which expressed its satisfaction for the Parliament “not recognizing a Palestinian state but rather supporting direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Regardless of the outcome of the vote, which has very little practical consequence, Italy’s ongoing change of narrative concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an interesting development in itself. Especially in an international community that seems to be growing more and more insensitive to Israel’s fears.
The author is an Italian journalist. @RossTercatin.