Italian Prime Minister Asks Netanyahu to Rethink Choice of Envoy to Rome

Opposition to former Italian MP Fiamma Nirenstein's appointment stems from ostensible conflicts of interest, mainly that she had represented Italian voters and would now serve another country 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

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi conveyed a discreet message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about six weeks ago, proposing that Netanyahu reconsider the appointment of former Italian MP Fiamma Nirenstein as Israel’s next ambassador to Rome, an Israeli source familiar with the matter told Haaretz.

Netanyahu announced Nirenstein’s appointment as ambassador last August. Nirenstein, 71, a former journalist, was a member of Italy’s parliament from 2008 to 2013. She represented the right-wing party of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and served as deputy head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

The source, who requested anonymity, said the message was conveyed after Renzi’s office realized the problems that could arise if Nirenstein became ambassador. Italy’s Jewish community was unhappy with the choice, and the Italian foreign and defense ministries opposed it.

The opposition stemmed from ostensible conflicts of interest, mainly that Nirenstein had represented Italian voters and would now serve as the ambassador of another country in Rome. Nirenstein would continue to receive a government salary as a former MP, even after she became Israel’s ambassador.

In addition, as part of her role in parliament at the time, Nirenstein was privy to Italian state secrets, and her son serves in a senior position in the Italian intelligence community. These two facts have led to numerous objections by Italian defense officials.

Moreover, although in 2013 Nirenstein moved to Israel and received Israeli citizenship, her life remains centered in Rome. She also ran unsuccessfully to become president of the Jewish community.

Even now, although her credentials as ambassador have not yet been accepted, she is active in public life and the Italian media – which is considered a breach of diplomatic protocol.

The message from Renzi to Netanyahu, which was conveyed to one of Netanyahu’s senior advisers, said it might be prudent to consider appointing someone else as Israel’s ambassador to Rome.

“What they are saying is that if Netanyahu is willing to consider the appointment of someone else to the post, he is invited to make contact and the Italian government would be happy to discuss it,” the source said.

A senior official in Netanyahu’s office who was asked about the matter by Haaretz did not deny the details.

Despite the message from the Italians, Netanyahu has not changed his mind about the appointment. A senior official in the Foreign Ministry said last week that the appointment had been approved by the Civil Service Commission and would be brought before the cabinet for approval in the coming weeks.

Despite widespread opposition to Nirenstein’s appointment in Italian government and political circles, senior officials in the Italian Foreign Ministry and Renzi’s office said they did not intend to create a crisis around the issue.

If Netanyahu insisted on it, they said, they would not refuse to accept the appointment. “They don’t want to quarrel over it,” an Israeli source familiar with the matter said.

During President Reuven Rivlin’s visit to Rome in September, the president of the Italian Jewish community, Ruth Dureghello, and the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, asked Rivlin to intervene to stop the appointment.

They told Rivlin that given Nirenstein’s recent membership in parliament and her run for president of the Jewish community, the appointment would trigger allegations of dual loyalty against Italy’s Jews.

Moreover, the two leaders said Nirenstein is fully identified with the right wing in Italy, which could harm ties between Jerusalem and the Italian government, which is currently left-leaning.