Far-right Italian minister slams EU for ‘unbalanced’ stance on Israel

Far-right Italian minister slams EU for ‘unbalanced’ stance on Israel

‘Whoever wants peace, needs to support Israel,’ Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini says in Jerusalem; stops short of endorsing two-state solution or embassy move

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini during a visit on the Israeli-Lebanese border, where he was shown a Hezbollah attack tunnel, December 11, 2018 (Twitter)
Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini during a visit on the Israeli-Lebanese border, where he was shown a Hezbollah attack tunnel, December 11, 2018 (Twitter)

The European Union has treated Israel unfairly, Italy’s far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said Tuesday in Jerusalem, while also indicating that Rome would not be shifting its stance toward the country.

“The EU has in recent years been entirely unbalanced, it has condemned and sanctioned Israel left and right, for every step it took,” he said at a press conference Tuesday evening.

Salvini, the controversial head of the far-right Lega party, arrived earlier on Tuesday for a two-day trip, during which he will also visit the Western Wall, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Before his press conference at the capital’s King David Hotel, Salvini met with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who said they discussed “countering anti-Israel decisions at the UN and EU.”

“Whoever wants peace, needs to support Israel,” Salvini told reporters after returning from a tour at Israel’s northern border, where he receive a briefing about the IDF’s ongoing operation to expose Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels.

EU-Israel relations have long been tense, as Brussels is adamantly opposed to Israeli’s settlement policies and staunchly supportive of the Iran nuclear deal. Israeli officials accuse the 28-member union of a pro-Palestinian bias, a claim the EU rejects.

During the press conference, Salvini did not explicitly endorse a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather saying that he supports any solution that “grows on the ground between the two parties.”

Despite previous comments in praise of the US relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Salvini, who also serves as interior minister in Italy’s populist government, indicated such a move was not currently on the table.

“Currently I am very happy to be interior minister in our unity government, I am not foreign minister. I will deal with this issue if and when I will be foreign minister,” he said.

He later visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, but refused to say that the holy site, which is situated in East Jerusalem, was part of Israel. It was not immediately clear if he was accompanied by Israeli officials during the visit.

Salvini, seen by many as the de-facto leader of Europe’s rising far right, is a controversial figure due to his hardline anti-immigration stance.

Before arriving in Israel, his office requested a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, which the president’s office declined due to “scheduling issues.”

Rivlin has recently taken a strong stance against what he termed “fascist” parties in Europe, regardless of their position on Israel.

“We must… work with the whole world to fight against xenophobia and discrimination, of which anti-Semitism is a variant,” Rivlin said in an interview with CNN. “There are neo-fascist movements today that have considerable and very dangerous influence, and sometimes they also express their strong support for the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu, who also holds the position of foreign minister, on the other hand, has eagerly embraced some far-right governments and parties  in Europe and elsewhere. Critics charge that he is wooing people who may profess to love Israel but are toxic in their hatred of immigrants and often are have close ties to anti-Semitic circles.

Like many anti-immigration politicians in Europe, Salvini is outspokenly pro-Israel and has locked horns with the EU as he pushes a hard line on migration, introducing a controversial crackdown on migrants fleeing Libya aboard smugglers’ boats.

Salvini’s Northern League party scored huge gains in the March elections on its xenophobic platform, and has vowed mass expulsions of migrants. In June, he sparked a multinational showdown by refusing entry to a Mediterranean Sea rescue boat packed with 630 migrants that were picked up off the coast of Libya.

Migrants sit aboard MV Aquarius, a rescue vessel chartered by SOS-Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), at the Mediterranean sea between Libya and Italy on May 9, 2018. (AFP/Louisa Gouliamaki)

Salvini also drew criticism and accusations of fascism earlier this year when he called for the compilation of a registry of Italy’s minority Roma community.

Salvini, 45, was greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday around noon by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat. The Italian minister and Ben Shabbat then took off on a helicopter for Israel’s northern border, where they receive security updates regarding the army’s ongoing operation to expose Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels.

In the afternoon, he met the Archbishop of Verbe Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is also the Apostolic Administrator of Jerusalem.

Salvini was scheduled to take a “graffiti and nightlife tour” through Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that late Tuesday night, according to his official itinerary.

The next morning, Salvini will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, followed by a working meeting with Netanyahu. He will then head to Yad Vashem for an hour-long visit, and will hold a meeting with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, before returning to Italy.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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