A tired Matteo Salvini looked as if the only thing on his mind Tuesday night was getting back to his hotel and going to sleep. The Italian deputy prime minister had already flown in from Rome earlier that day, been taken by helicopter to tour Israel’s northern border, prayed at the Western Wall and had meetings with the Vatican’s representative in the Holy Land. But the organizers of his whirlwind trip to Israel had also for some reason scheduled a late-night bar crawl through Jerusalem’s swiftly gentrifying Mahane Yehuda market.
Yet when reporters asked Salvini (also Italy’s interior minister) about the next day’s schedule, he immediately perked up and an almost-dreamy look fell upon his face. He was to meet Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in the morning, and admitted he was “curious” and saw the Israeli prime minister as “an inspiration.”
He was looking forward to talking with Bibi about “counterterrorism, high-tech and universities,” but above all he just seemed excited about finally spending time with the man who has become a father figure to right-wing nationalist leaders around the world.
The most powerful man in Italy (Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is a technocrat, appointed as a compromise by the governing coalition), Salvini is leader of the League – the formerly northern separatist party (Lega Nord) that under his leadership has become a pan-Italian party, championing anti-immigrant policies. It performed surprisingly well in last March’s parliamentary election.
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His left-wing critics call him a neofascist, while the League’s coalition partner – the polyglot, ultra-populist Five Star Movement – is unhappy with what increasingly looks like an uneven partnership. The League is ending 2018 as the largest party in the polls, by a wide margin, and many political analysts predict Salvini will be prime minister in his own right before long.
He has a strong claim to being the most important nationalist politician in Western Europe today – which makes it extremely interesting that he chose to make Israel his first trip outside of Europe (aside from the G-20 in Argentina) since becoming deputy leader. It was Salvini who requested the meeting with Netanyahu, not the Israeli side.
In a year that has seen visits to Israel by such leaders as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and, from further afield, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it is clear that the Bibi pilgrimage has become a rite of passage for a certain kind of foreign politician.
It is clear what they come for on the political level: Politicians who are historically tainted with their party’s past associations with fascist and neo-Nazi roots can get Israel’s kashrut stamp by visiting the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
And Netanyahu isn’t just the leader of the Jewish state. He is also widely, and probably justifiably, seen as the world leader with the best personal and political relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump – the road to Trump’s Washington goes through Jerusalem. There are also commercial, technological and security agreements to be had.
But there seems to be an even deeper ideological attraction. In an era when smaller nations are emphasizing their nationalist symbols and defying larger neighbors and international bodies like the European Union, Netanyahu is a source of inspiration: The prime minister who defied President Barack Obama for nearly his entire two terms and is still standing. Who stood up to the international community over the Iran nuclear deal. Who has resolutely refused any concessions to the Palestinians and boycotts the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.
Netanyahu is the contrarian nationalist leader who has proved you can get away with it. And they all want some of that aura.
The Israeli premier obviously adores the adulation. He also calculates that cultivating relations with the more Euroskeptic elements of the EU – like Salvini, Orbán (and other members of the Visegrád Group) and the Baltic states – will help to disrupt European policies on Iran and the Palestinian issue.
But is he not taking a risk by trying to ride Europe’s nationalist tiger?
In recent weekends, the EU’s key members have faced political turmoil. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been forced to abandon his tax plans after rioting by the Yellow Vest (Gilets Jaunes) movement. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has managed to hang on with a weakened governing coalition, but has already handed over the leadership of her weakened CDU party and is entering the twilight of her career. In Brexit Britain, it’s still unclear if and how the country will crash out of the EU next March.
The old political parties in France have already collapsed and Macron’s new, centrist Onward! (En Marche!) party, which only a year ago was created out of nothing and swept to power, is looking increasingly like a one-term wonder. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative and Labour parties – which have alternately held power for a century – both seem closer than ever to splitting. Similar dynamics are being replicated across the Continent.
Netanyahu, who loves the label of being “the first to identify,” has for years been betting on the European antiestablishment right – long before populism became the byword for contemporary politics.
But if the political makeup of the protesters in France is anything to go by, it could go either way. They include many who voted last year for the far-right Front National (now called National Rally), but also voters from the far-left Unbowed France (“La France Insoumise”).
Someone like Salvini, who has not been tainted personally by anti-Semitism and has long presented himself as a staunch supporter of Israel, may be desirable to Netanyahu. But a Europe increasingly gripped by the likes of Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon (and his British counterpart, Jeremy Corbyn), who may occupy opposite poles of political ideology but share a hatred of the old establishment and are hostile to Israel – as well as having bad relations with their local Jewish communities – is another matter.
Netanyahu favors a disjointed and weakened EU, one that is unable to talk in a joint voice on the matters that are important to him. But he should be careful what he wishes for. Europe is still Israel’s largest trading partner, the source of hundreds of millions of euros in research funds – and until the Arab world finally opens up to Israel, it’s also the most important neighbor the country has.
For domestic political reasons, and short-term diplomatic gains, Netanyahu has promoted the image of a hostile “anti-Israel” EU. But he knows better than most that this isn’t the reality. The likes of Salvini may be his starry-eyed fans, but a Europe riven by nationalism and extremism will not be in Israel’s interests.