Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini called the Western Wall a place that "belongs to everyone" while visiting the holy site during his two-day diplomatic trip to Israel.
Salvini made the comment after he was asked by Haaretz whether the site was part of Israel or not, being part of East Jerusalem.
The Italian interior minister has been facing criticism from his own country for other comments he made during his stay in the Holy Land. Earlier Tuesday, Italy's ministry of defense criticized Salvini for calling Hezbollah "Islamic terrorists" during his visit to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.
In a statement to Italian media, the Italian defense ministry said: “These statements obviously put in a very difficult position our men who are deployed on that southern border.”
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.
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In its statement, the Italian Ministry of Defense said Salvini’s comments caused “embarrassment” and undermined Italy’s “role as impartial brokers in the area.”
Hezbollah’s armed wing is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union, but its political party is not.
During a press conference at the King David hotel in Jerusalem, Salvini fired back at the ministry of defense, saying: “I don’t understand why they are so surprised I called Hezbollah Islamic terrorists.
“I don’t think [Hezbollah] dug tunnels dozens of meters underground to go shopping,” he said.
Salvini’s tour of the north, during the first day of his visit to Israel, comes as the Israeli army continues to unearth and dismantle a series of tunnels entering the country from Lebanon. UNIFIL confirmed the existence of a number of the tunnels found near the “blue line” frontier where Salvini toured. When the tunnels were first discovered UNIFIL described their existence as a “serious occurrence”.
Calling Israel a “bulwark of Western rights and values,” Salvini said there is an “obvious risk of aggression by Islamic extremism” from Lebanon. “I thank Italian soldiers for their presence there but at my home we call terrorists by their name,” he said. “There are European court sentences that call terrorists terrorists,” he concluded.
Asked by Haaretz whether he would move Italy’s embassy to Jerusalem, Salvini did not give a clear reply. “I will think about it when I am in a position to make such [a] decision, right now I am a minister of the interiors, not a foreign minister,” he said, without dismissing the idea.
Salvini also called out the EU for its “unbalanced” position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying the organization “condemns Israel every 15 minutes.”
“Unfortunately part of the aid given to Palestinians did not end up where it was supposed to,” Salvini added but did not provide further detail.
Addressing criticism in Israel of his far-right positions, which saw a handful of people protest his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Salvini said the criticism just makes him “smile.” “They will get over it, it’s the fourth time I’ve come to Israel, fourth time I’ve gone to Yad Vashem,” he claimed.
Asked about a purported anti-Semitic incident in Rome today, where stepping stones dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims were vandalized, Salvini said he will do whatever is in his powers to catch those responsible. Asked about why he is not meeting any Palestinian representatives during his visit, he replied he will do so next time: “I sent my best wishes to Abu Mazen [Abbas], but if you look at my crazy schedule…”, he said, implying scheduling issues were the cause.
Salvini also met with Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who urged him to make sure UNIFIL “be proactive” in dealing with Hezbollah and enforcing UN resolutions.
Erdan said that in the future, Israel "will have no choice but to strike Lebanon's infrastructure, which serves Hezbollah." Erdan also asked Salvini to work to “stop the EU from funding organizations that support a boycott,” a statement from the Israeli minister’s office said.
Salvini said he was proud to be in Jerusalem "the capital of Israel" and called Israel "a fortress for the protection of Europe."
The Italian deputy premier added it must be recognized that a big part of today's anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments come from "the new Muslim communities [in Europe]."
Erdan thanked Salvini for his visit, and said Italy and Israel are "partners in the struggle against radical Islamic terrorism that threatens Europe and Israel."
Erdan also thanked Salvini for Italy's "efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.”