They’re Openly Hostile to Israel. So Why Did These Italian Politicians Just Pay a Visit?

Part of the European and American populist, demagogic political tide, with a conspiracy theory twist, Italy's Five Star Movement has accused Israel of genocide. And Israeli politicians, from Ayman Oudeh to Avi Dichter, lined up to meet them.

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Five-Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo gestures during a rally in Turin, Italy February 16, 2013.
Ariel David
Ariel David

Peace must be on the verge of breaking out in the Middle East. Hamas is apparently just a political party that has resorted to terrorism solely because of "the isolation of Gaza." 

Meanwhile, "Christians, Muslims and Jews are living peacefully together" in Bethlehem (a Palestinian town where there are no Jews and the Christian population has been declining for decades).

These are some of the geopolitical fantasies that emerged during last week's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by leaders of Italy's Five Star Movement, the anti-establishment party that has shaken Italian politics since it was founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a popular comedian turned firebrand demagogue.

And these gems of misinformation would be very comic indeed, had they not been pronounced by those who have a very good shot at leading the next government in what is one of Israel's closest European allies.  

And more than just sounding the alarm on Jerusalem's ties with Rome, the visit by the Five Star Movement can be taken as a symbol of the trouble awaiting Israel, Europe and the world at large as a tide of populist sentiment sweeps through western democracies and threatens to vote extremists from the left and right into power.

Fresh off a victory in local elections last month, in which it won control of Rome and other major cities, the Five Star Movement is now polling above the ruling, center-left Democratic Party. According to the same polls, the movement's rising star, 30-year-old Luigi Di Maio, is Italy's most popular politician and is widely expected to make a run for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's job when national elections are held (at the latest in 2018, but you never know in Italy).

The Five Star Movement leaped to success by vowing to fight corruption and replace the old political establishment, while embracing populist promises to take Italy out of the Eurozone and grant a minimum stipend to every Italian citizen. Its leaders are also known for supporting a number of bizarre ideas, ranging from conspiracy theories about vaccines (they’re against them) through airplane contrails (support for the "chemtrail theory," that airplanes are secretly used to disseminate chemical agents) to the concept that the world is run by a secret cabal of bankers, financiers and politicians (yes, the Bilderberg Group). 

Sensing that power is now within its grasp, the party is trying to rebrand itself by toning down its more radical messages. The wild rants of its comedian founder, Grillo, may have become too much even for the most enthusiastic “grillini” – as his supporters are nicknamed. Grillo has repeatedly claimed that the CIA may have been involved in the September 11 attacks, railed against “Jewish Hollywood producers” and stated that a group led by a former Mossad agent controls all information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that reaches Europe.

While he remains the party's ideologue and conspiracy-theorist-in-chief, Grillo has faded slightly into the background, leaving the limelight to younger leaders like Di Maio, who serves as the vice president of the lower chamber of parliament and led the movement's delegation on its five-day Mideast visit.

The tour was part of the party's strategy to present itself as a potential government force and was mainly geared for local consumption back home. After all, nothing projects statesmanship and foreign policy credibility as engagement in the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The trip was also supposed to at least partially redress and temper what so far has been the party's rather open hostility toward the Jewish state, which has gone beyond Grillo's conspiratorial remarks. 

During the 2014 Gaza war, for example, Manlio Di Stefano, a former computer engineer who acts as the movement's point person for foreign policy, accused Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians and of launching the conflict to block the development of Gaza's marine gas fields. Speaking in parliament, he said Zionism was by definition discriminatory against minorities and called on the government to withdraw its ambassador and suspend all economic agreements with Israel.

On a superficial level, the visit appeared successful in mending some fences. Di Maio, impeccably dressed in a suit and tie despite the July heat, ostensibly did and said all the right things. He and his followers, which included Di Stefano, met with Knesset members, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and a memorial to Israeli victims of terror, condemned "any terrorist actions by Hamas" and declared their support for a two-state solution, while calling for renewed dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. 

On the other side, while touring Palestinian towns and refugee camps, they pledged that a Five-Star government would officially recognize the State of Palestine, condemned the separation wall and settlements in the West Bank and denounced Israel's refusal to grant the delegation a permit to visit Gaza.

But there were too many slipups, gaffes and bizarre remarks to convince anyone that the professions of neutrality, of "we are just here to listen and learn" were anything but prepared remarks force-fed to the reluctant politicians by some PR strategist back home.

When asked by Haaretz about his 2014 "genocide" remarks, Di Stefano said he stood by them, but added that they had been made "in a particular moment, in which we were witnessing the death of 2200 people in the bombing of Gaza." (Apparently it's OK to talk to genocidal regimes, as long as they are not committing genocide right now.) Speaking to the Italian daily La Stampa, he went on to qualify the condemnation of Hamas by saying that only its actions were terroristic, while the group itself "was born as a party that won free elections. Then, the isolation of Gaza changed things." (Hamas was founded in 1987, long before Israel blockaded the Gaza Strip, and its charter called for the destruction of Israel from the get go.)

Di Maio, when repeatedly asked whether Israel had a right to defend itself if attacked by terrorist groups (such as rocket launches by Hamas), refused to be pinned down, saying such that such questions were "hypothetical." And finally, the potential future prime minister of Italy waxed lyrical on his Facebook profile about the above-mentioned nonexistent Jewish community of Bethlehem

Beneath their skin-deep neutrality, the visiting "grillini" (barely) concealed a deep-seated mistrust of Israel, while displaying a willingness to listen to and believe anything they heard from the Palestinian side, to the point of propagating grotesque distortions. 

While they may not necessarily implement all of Di Stefano's recommendations from 2014, this bias makes it unlikely that a future government led by the Five Star Movement will have anything close to the friendly relationship that Israel enjoys today with Rome

Ultimately, the "grillini" – who have been snapping up votes from across the political spectrum – will say and do what their core supporters will demand, on the Middle East or anything else. And, looking at the broader picture, that's really the main problem with all these populist, anti-establishment parties that have been gaining currency in the West. For these groups, the (perceived) will of the people trumps everything else, to the point that facts, figures and reality itself must be molded to fit what the voters want to hear.

That's how the "grillini" can convince many Italians they will be better off without the Euro, because that feeds off the resentment over austerity measures that are seen as imposed by Germany and successfully deflects any responsibility for the country's troubles from Italy's own dysfunctional economy.

That's how the right-wing U.K. Independence Party (which shares a caucus with the Five Star Movement in the EU Parliament) helped carry the day for Brexit in the recent UK referendum on EU membership by promising to transfer to the National Health System millions of pounds that did not exist. 

And this is how Donald Trump gets away with his outlandish statements, which, as a recent analysis by the AP put it, often "make only passing acquaintance with reality." 

When facts become putty in the hands of demagogues; when politics and governments slip from reality into the Twilight Zone, human rights, freedoms and all that we hold dear in a democracy are likely to quickly follow suit. Neither Jews, nor Israel, nor the rest of the world are likely to thrive in such an environment.

Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz and other English-language publications. He has worked for five years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican. Follow him on Twitter: @arieldavid1980 

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