Analysis

Italy’s New Populist Rulers Love Putin, Hate Immigrants and Are Confused About Israel

The ‘Italy first’ parties that will govern in Rome have expressed diametrically opposing views on Israel. But they have few doubts about putting Russia first in their foreign policy

A mural depicting Northern League's leader Matteo Salvini and 5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio kissing is seen in Rome, Italy March 23, 2018.
\ TONY GENTILE/ REUTERS

More than two months after an undecided election left Italy with a hung parliament, the scenario that terrified many moderates and EU supporters has materialized. For the first time in post-war history, a major western European democracy will be led by a majority of Eurosceptic populists and far-right politicians. Following weeks of negotiations, Rome is now poised to fall to the coalition formed by the far-right anti-immigrant League party and the grassroots anti-establishment 5 Star Movement.

The two parties have signed a broad coalition agreement and are now finalizing the government team, after their respective leaders – the firebrand Matteo Salvini for the League and the fresh-faced Luigi di Maio for the 5 Stars – agreed to set aside their personal ambitions and leave the premiership to a more moderate and technocratic figure. The job is widely expected to go to Giuseppe Conte, a little-known law professor with no political experience.

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The 5 Stars and the League emerged as the top parties in the March 4 elections, capturing 32 and 17 percent of the vote respectively, meaning it would have been impossible to form a majority in parliament without at least one of these forces. Early scrutiny of the unprecedented yellow-green alliance, named after the colors of the 5 Stars and League respectively, has focused on the “contract” the two forces signed to outline how they intend to govern.

Matteo Salvini as he leaves a news conference following a meeting with Italy's President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinale Palace in Rome, Italy, on Monday, May 14, 2018.
Bloomberg

The agreement is a mix of ultra-liberalist policies and socially-minded populist moves, from introducing a flat tax rate to lowering the retirement age and granting citizen stipends. The deal does not reference plans to take Italy out of the Euro zone or write off public debt held by the European Central Bank – policies the parties had supported during the election campaign. Still, the mere promise of crowd-pleasing but costly reforms, which Italy’s debt-laden balance sheet can hardly afford, has been enough to rattle Italian markets and prompt warnings from European allies calling on the new government to respect EU budget rules and not endanger the stability of the Euro zone. 

Beyond the coalition’s economic platform, little attention has been paid to its foreign policy plan and what it could mean for Rome’s positioning both in the EU and in the various crisis zones of the Middle East.

While section nine of the coalition agreement is titled “Foreign Policy,” it deals overwhelmingly with prospective policy toward a single country: Russia.

The contract pledges to keep Italy in NATO and preserve the alliance with the United States, while “reaching out to Russia, which should not be perceived as a threat but as an economic and commercial partner.” The joint platform goes on to call for an “immediate” end to all western sanctions on Russia and for the “rehabilitation” of Moscow as a “strategic counterpart” to solve a host of regional conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The text concludes that “since Russia is not a military threat,” NATO and the EU should focus on other issues in the Mediterranean, such as Islamic extremism and the “uncontrolled” flow of migrants.

This single-minded dedication to improving ties with Moscow as a panacea for all that ails the world is in line with the close links both parties are known to have cultivated with the Kremlin.

The 5 Star Movement, which, over the last decade, has pioneered the use of social media in Italy to channel voter outrage at the country’s corrupt political establishment, routinely hosts propaganda material and fake news sourced from Kremlin-linked outlets such as Sputnik and Russia Today on its vast online network. 

Ahead of the elections, Italian officials sounded the alarm over how Russian interference and social media influencing campaigns could favor the populist parties. 

Both the 5 Stars and the League have praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies, defended Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, panned the EU sanctions that followed it and forged official ties with the ruling United Russia party.

Anti-establishment Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maiospeaking to the press after a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella on May 7, 2018 at the Quirinale palace in Rome.
TIZIANA FABI/AFP

The League’s leader Salvini once summed up his international political links by tweeting: “Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva Le Pen,” referring to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, a key ally for the League in the European Parliament. 

While the new government’s proximity to Moscow is easy to predict, it is harder at this point to foresee how this historical shift in Italian politics will play out in Rome’s relations with Israel.

Salvini has displayed similar affection for Israel as other far-right populists in Europe, who see the Jewish state as a bulwark against Islamic extremists and terrorism. He has declared himself a “friend and brother of Israel” and visited the country in 2016, meeting Knesset members and condemning Hamas for “holding hostage” millions of Israelis and Palestinians.

On the other hand, Salvini has not shied away from conspiracy theories with an age-old anti-Semitic flavor, such as accusing Jewish-American magnate George Soros of supporting illegal immigration into Italy.

The 5 Star Movement’s record on Israel and Jews is even spottier. The movement has long flirted with many of the conspiracy theories peddled by its founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, such as the idea that a secret cabal of bankers and financiers runs the world or that the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were an inside job. 

Grillo has written on his popular blog that Israel is “frightening” and “irresponsible” and could start a Third World War, and his followers in parliament have displayed a strong anti-Israeli bent, accusing the Jewish state of genocide during the 2014 Gaza War and calling on the government to cut diplomatic ties.

But which of these ideological streams will control and direct Rome’s Middle East policy?

Italian media report that the foreign minister post is expected to go to Gampiero Massolo, a respected diplomat and former head of the body that coordinates Italy’s secret services.

The fact that technocrats are slated to be tapped as prime minister and foreign minister suggests that, to placate EU allies, the coalition is happy to have moderates be the government’s face abroad, while Salvini takes the Interior Ministry to focus on his anti-immigrant agenda (he has promised to “cleanse” the country “street by street, piazza by piazza”) and the 5 Star leader Di Maio shepherds through economic reforms.

But will these technocrats wield any power, or will they just be puppets in the hands of their populist masters? If so, it remains to be seen whether policy toward Israel will be determined by the League or the 5 Stars, or whether it will also be influenced by the ups and downs of the complex and delicate relationship between Jerusalem and Rome’s new great friend, Russia.