An embarrassing diplomatic incident between Israel and Italy occurred on Sunday at the Munich Security Conference, after Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz failed to show for a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
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Senior Israeli officials said the furious Italians were placated only after Steinitz apologized and explained his absence.
Steinitz had come to the conference to hold meetings with European foreign ministers about Iran. He had asked to meet with Gentiloni, who took office only a few months ago. It was to be Gentiloni’s first meeting with an Israeli minister since he had assumed his post.
The meeting with Gentiloni was scheduled for Saturday evening, at the same time as the conference session that was addressed by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. A few minutes before the scheduled time, Gentiloni left the main hall for the meeting room that had been reserved for his meeting with Steinitz.
The Italian foreign minister and his aides waited for Steinitz, but the latter never arrived. Efforts to locate him or his aides failed. After 15 minutes, an angry Gentiloni left the room and told his men to issue a sharp protest to Steinitz and the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and to demand an explanation.
A senior Israeli official said Italian diplomats contacted their Israeli counterparts, stressed that this was disrespectful behavior, and that Gentiloni was deeply insulted by Steinitz’s absence – particularly since it was Steinitz who had asked for the meeting.
As it turned out, as the Italian foreign minister was waiting for naught in the meeting room, Biden had started to address the audience in the main hall.
When the Italian protests reached him after Biden’s address, Steinitz explained that he had felt “trapped” in the main hall by Biden’s speech. Steinitz said he hadn’t wanted to walk out of the hall before or in the middle of Biden’s address, lest that act be misinterpreted in light of the tension between Israel and the White House over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to address the U.S. Congress next month.
Biden recently announced that he would not be present for Netanyahu’s speech on March 3, and Steinitz feared that absenting himself from Biden’s speech would be seen as retaliation. After Steinitz’s explanation and profuse apology, the Italians were mollified.
Steinitz’s office said, “The minister held a marathon of meetings in Munich, and to our great regret he wasn’t able to get to the meeting with the Italian foreign minister on time because of scheduling delays. Since the Italian minister was also hurrying to his next meeting, we apologized to the minister, and the chiefs of staff of both ministers agreed to set up a meeting for them as soon as possible.”