Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said Wednesday he had a highly friendly, informal and productive meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding Netanyahu asked him to fight an alleged "bias against Israel at the United Nations, UNESCO and the European Union." Netanyahu welcomed Salvini, who holds far-right, fiercely anti-immigration views, calling him "a great friend of Israel."
Earlier Tuesday, Italy's ministry of defense criticized Salvini for calling Hezbollah "Islamic terrorists" during his visit to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, saying he was jeopardising Italy's role as "impartial brokers." Italy is part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that serves as a peacekeeping force on the border between Israel and Lebanon, and currently heads the UN mission there.
Referring to the UN interim force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, Netanyahu said: "You have an Italian commander in UNIFIL. We think UNIFIL has to do a stronger job, tougher job, and prevent Hezbollah's aggression against Israel, but ultimately it's the responsibility of the international community."
Arriving to Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Salvini told journalists he discussed cooperation between Israel and Italy in the fields of anti-terrorism, illegal migration, as well as "changing the EU's attitudes toward Israel" with Netanyahu. Salvini said he promised to "take it upon himself" to fight an alleged "anti-Israeli bias" at the EU. The main topic, however, was fostering economic cooperation between the two countries, said Salvini, who praised Netanyahu as "someone who has really clear ideas and knows what he is doing." The two leaders also discussed developing a gas pipeline running from Israel all the way to southern Italy.
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At Yad Vashem, president of Italy's Union of Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni spoke to Salvini about a "trend'" among Italians who brush off responsibility for persecutions against Jews during WWII, casting blame upon the Germans alone. Di Segni also warned Salvini, who has repeatedly claimed that the new type of anti-Semitism comes from Islamist extremists, saying that he should not discount the power of far-right anti-Semitism and should take a strong position against that too.
Reacting to criticism that she shouldn’t have joined Salvini on the trip due to his ambiguous record in condemning xenophobia and Italy’s fascist past, Di Segni said that a "boycott" of his trip would have been counter-productive. “I think we need to engage with these people positively, not ostracize them,” she told Haaretz, rejecting the charge by some in Italy's Jewish community that her presence in Israel could lend unduly legitimacy to Salvini. “As president of the Union of Jewish Communities I have to maintain a dialogue with Italian institutions, and today that also involves a conversation with the League," she concluded.
Salvini visited Israel for two days: In addition to meeting Netanyahu, he held talks with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during the trip.
President Reuven Rivlin received a request for a meeting but declined to meet Salvini. A spokesperson from his office told Haaretz this was because of “schedule issues,” not “protocol.” Some European diplomats in Tel Aviv believe his decision could be, at least in part, political and quote a recent CNN interview with Rivlin where he spoke critically about Israel’s relationships with far-right movements.
Salvini’s League is staunchly pro-Israel and, defying EU practice if not official policy, his visit does not include a meeting with a Palestinian representative.
In a Washington Post interview last summer, Salvini said he approved of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there.
A close political ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Salvini is rapidly establishing himself as Italy’s most influential politician and as de facto leader of Europe’s populist anti-immigration camp in the run-up to European Parliament elections in 2019.
Salvini’s League successfully ran on a nationalist anti-immigration platform promising to put “Italians first,” which critics called Islamophobic and xenophobic. Salvini routinely dismisses such charges as baseless.