Italian Jewish Leaders Urge Rivlin to Block New Israeli Envoy's Appointment

President asked to intervene in appointment of former Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein, who is close to Berlusconi, as Israel's ambassador in Rome.

An archive photo from October 7, 2010 showing Fiamma Nirenstein, then member of Italian Parliament, taking part in a pro-Israel demonstration in Rome.
AFP

Leading figures in Italy’s Jewish community asked President Reuven Rivlin during his visit last week to intervene to block the appointment of former Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein as Israel’s ambassador in Rome.

Last month Haaretz reported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to appoint Nirenstein to the post; the prime minister’s decision is unusual in that the current ambassador, Naor Gilon, still has a year until his term is up, and Nirenstein’s appointment has already begun the vetting process by the Civil Service Commission. However, the appointment has still not been approved by the cabinet and therefore senior member of the Jewish community still believe that it is not too late to reconsider.

Sources in the Jewish community in Italy told Haaretz that last Thursday during Rivlin’s visit, the president of Rome’s Jewish community, Ruth Dureghello and Rome’s chief rabbi, Ricardo Di Segni, asked to meet privately with Rivlin.

According to the sources, who are familiar with the details of the meeting but asked to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the matter, Dureghello and Di Segni expressed great concern over the appointment and its negative implications for the Jewish community and relations between Israel and Italy.

The sources said that the two Italian Jewish leaders explained to Rivlin that the appointment of someone who had so recently been a senior member of the Italian parliament and had also run unsuccessfully for president of Rome’s Jewish community three months ago could raise claims of dual loyalty.

The two also told Rivlin that Nirenstein was almost fully identified with the right wing in Italy, which could have a negative impact on ties between Israel’s government and the Italian government, which is controlled by the left wing.

Rivlin told Dureghello and Di Segni that he understood their concerns but that he had to decline their request because he had neither authority nor responsibility for the appointment of ambassadors. Rivlin proposed that the two leaders present their arguments to Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister.

Nirenstein, who holds dual Italian-Israeli citizenship, served from 2008 until 2013 as a member of the Italian parliament representing the right-wing party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to whom she is very close. She also served as chairwoman of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

An Israeli official who knows her described her as identified with the right wing of Likud. Nirenstein would frequently defend Israel on television programs in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, confronting politicians or other public figures who criticized Israel.

In 2011, she told Israel Hayom in an interview that she had once been a leftist, but after her first visit to Israel in 1967, even before the Six-Day War, she began to abandon her left-wing views.

Before going into politics Nirenstein was a journalist. In the 1990s she served as cultural attaché in the Italian Embassy in Israel and thereafter represented a number of Italian newspapers in Israel. After leaving politics in 2013, she went back to working for the right-wing newspaper Il Giornale, owned by Berlusconi.

In 2013, Nirenstein moved to Israel; she now lives in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. Still, only a month ago she made her unsuccessful bid for the presidency of Rome’s Jewish community.

If Nirenstein is made ambassador to Italy, she will have to give up her Italian citizenship.

The president’s spokesman declined to comment for this report.