Matteo Renzi is Italy’s youngest-ever premier, and he could also be one of the most pro-Israeli.
The 39-year-old ambitious leader of the center-left, who was sworn in on Saturday as Italy’s fourth prime minister in four years, may bring Rome, already one of Israel’s key allies in Europe, even closer to the Jewish state.
The former mayor of Florence burst onto the national stage in December by winning the primary election of the Democratic Party, the largest force in parliament, and earlier this month used his new position to oust the 10-month-old coalition government of fellow democrat Enrico Letta.
His popularity is mostly linked to a reputation as a no-nonsense city administrator and a pledge to jump-start Italy’s sluggish economy by creating jobs and cutting taxes. But the outspoken and fresh-faced Italian politician has also touched on foreign policy matters during his campaign.
He has pointed to Tehran’s regime as the major source of trouble for the Middle East and has said that Europe should do more to support pro-democracy movements in Iran.
“The main problem of the area is Iran − if we don’t solve that one we will not be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said during a 2012 debate, adding that Europe needed to “listen to the cry of pain of the Green Wave,” referring to the protests that had followed the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
At the time, Renzi also voiced doubts about the Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations and criticized Italy’s decision to follow other European Union countries in voting in favor.
The new premier is not expected to change the cornerstone of Italy’s Middle East policy, which follows EU views on opposing settlement expansion and pushing for a two-state solution in the conflict with the Palestinians. But Renzi has voiced strong support and empathy for the Jewish state, chastising his fellow leftists for their knee-jerk anti-Israeli attitudes.
“Israel is a country surrounded by others that want its destruction, starting with Iran,” he commented during 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense. “The Italian left must learn to say that Israel has a right to exist without threats, because too often the left has had an inconceivable and unbearable anti-Israeli attitude.”
Renzi’s attitude has earned him support among Italy’s small Jewish community. While community leaders didn’t officially endorse him, many Jews campaigned for him and used social networks and SMS chains to urge friends and family to vote for him in the Democratic primary.
Renzi’s views have also been used to attack him. Far-left blogs routinely publish conspiracy theories claiming he receives funding from Israel and the United States. In the mainstream, his main opponent in the primary, Pierluigi Bersani, once remarked that “on Israel and Palestine, Renzi says things that are more right-wing than all the right-wing parties put together.”
It was in fact the right-wing media mogul and now opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi who, during three stints as premier in the last two decades, slowly reversed Italy’s traditionally pro-Palestinian stance. Even after the scandal-ridden politician’s fall from grace, relations continue to be at an all-time high, with the two governments holding joint cabinet meetings, signing research cooperation agreements and encouraging commercial ties that have made Italy Israel’s second-largest trade partner in the EU, after Germany.
Although he has visited the country, Renzi’s closeness to Israel mostly stems from his broader political views and goals. Inspired by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his transformation of the Labor party, Renzi has set out to change Italy’s stuffy post-communist left into a more liberal and social-democratic force − and that modernization includes throwing out old prejudices on Israel and the U.S.
“He is much closer to the West, and has great respect for Israel,” said Yoram Gutgeld, an Israeli-Italian management consultant who was elected to parliament for the Democrats and is one of Renzi’s top economic advisors. “On foreign policy we will definitely have a friend.”
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