Hosting Italy’s deputy PM, Netanyahu urges stronger action against Hezbollah

Salvini doubles down on dubbing Lebanese group ‘terrorists,’ despite having been criticized at home for use of the term

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

Italian then-deputy premier Matteo Salvini, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, December 12, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Italian then-deputy premier Matteo Salvini, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, December 12, 2018. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Meeting with Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to take a more aggressive stance toward Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization that has dug several attack tunnels across the border into Israel.

“You had the opportunity to see the terror tunnels yourself directly. This is a clear act of aggression of Hezbollah against us and against the norms of the international community,” Netanyahu told Salvini at the beginning of their two-hour meeting in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu noted that the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Major General Stefano Del Col, is Italian. “We think UNIFIL has to do a stronger job, tougher job, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the international community,” the prime minister said. “They should stop Hezbollah from taking these acts of aggression against Israel.”

Salvini replied that he had met Del Col the night before, and went on to say that there is a “problem” with Italian media, which criticized him for calling Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

“Hezbollah hides behind civilians, fires on civilians, murders civilians, but how can you possibly call them civilians?” Netanyahu said sarcastically.

“If you have a problem with the Italian press, I cannot give you any advice, because I have no problems with the Israeli press at all, I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he added ironically.

“Terrorists are terrorists,” Salvini replied.

The European Union recognizes the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but not its political wing, which is part of the Lebanese government.

Salvini, the controversial head of the far-right Lega party, arrived in Israel on Tuesday for a two-day trip, which started with a security briefing at the northern border, including a visit at one of Hezbollah’s tunnels.

UNIFIL has acknowledged the existence of two of the three tunnels the IDF has so far revealed, but did not state what their purpose is and who built them.

During their meeting Wednesday, Netanyahu called Salvini “a great friend of Israel.”

Salvini, who also serves as interior minister in Italy’s populist government, has expressed strong support for the Jewish state since he arrived.

“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, referring to the union’s alleged pro-Palestinian bias.

“Whoever wants peace needs to support Israel,” Salvini told reporters.

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 indicated such a move was not currently on the table in Italy.

“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.

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.

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.

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

Salvini took a “graffiti and nightlife tour” through Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that late Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, Salvini visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

Later on Wednesday, he will meet Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, before returning to Italy.

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