Hundreds of Israelis, local Jews protest outside PM's hotel

In Rome, Netanyahu says ties with Italy about to expand dramatically

After meeting Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, PM doesn’t mention Iran threat, though sources say it dominated the discussion

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome's Palazzo Chigi, March 10, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome's Palazzo Chigi, March 10, 2023. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

ROME — After meeting with Italian premier Giorgia Meloni on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted that the relationship between Israel and Italy is about to expand significantly.

“The friendship between Italy and Israel has been a long one and a growing one, but I think it’s about to take on an even greater dimension,” said Netanyahu after their talks at Palazzo Chigi, the Italian prime minister’s official residence.

“I think there is room here for enormous collaboration and improvement,” he continued.

He said that there would be a major government-to-government meeting between the two sides in Israel in the coming months, which would cover cooperation on natural gas, water, agriculture, innovation and more.

Surprisingly, Netanyahu did not mention Iran in his statement alongside Meloni, though moving European powers closer to Israel’s position on Tehran’s nuclear program was a major goal of the meeting. Officials in Netanyahu’s entourage told The Times of Israel that Iran was discussed at length in the bilateral talks.

His meeting with Meloni came just after Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a resumption of diplomatic ties, a development that Netanyahu was widely criticized in Israel for failing to prevent.

Netanyahu has been touting the possibility of Israel signing a normalization deal with Riyadh.

Opposition figures accused Netanyahu of prioritizing pushing through his contentious judicial overhaul at the expense of focusing on Iran.

Israeli domestic politics also intruded on his visit to Italy, with hundreds of Israelis and members of the local Jewish community turning out to protest against him. They waved Israeli flags and chanted “De-Mo-Cra-Cy,” while gathered outside Netanyahu’s hotel.

The prime minister also did not mention the possibility of Italy moving its embassy to Jerusalem during his statement, but a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel that this subject, too, came up in their meeting.

Speaking in Italian before Netanyahu, Meloni expressed her solidarity after Thursday’s terrorist shooting attack in Tel Aviv, and said that she was worried about rising violence in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni (R speak to reporters after their meeting in Rome’s Palazzo Chigi, March 10, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“Italy is willing to do whatever we can to de-escalate violence, which is worrying for everyone,” she said.

Meloni, Italy’s first female prime minister who came into office in October, stressed that Rome stood ready to support any political processes between Israel and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu was greeted at the palace by an honor guard clad in black and red. A military band played Hatikvah and Italy’s national anthem before Netanyahu and Meloni reviewed the assembled troops.

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu told a forum of Italian business leaders that Israel wants to increase its gas exports to Italy and Europe.

“We are already cooperating in gas with your national company (energy giant ENI) but we want to expand it,” he told Italian Enterprise Minister Adolfo Urso.”I think we should look very carefully and quickly at the possibility of adding an LNG facility, perhaps in Cyprus, to increase Israel’s export capacities of gas to Italy, and from Italy to Europe.”

Like other European countries, Italy has been working hard to reduce its dependence on Russian gas since the start of the Ukraine war.

Israel began producing and exporting gas after discovering several reservoirs off its coast in the early 2010s. But it lacks a gas pipeline to connect its drilling platforms in the Mediterranean to southern Europe.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italian business leaders in Rome, March 10, 2023 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

“I think [gas] is a strategic need of Italy and Europe, and Israel is prepared to do more with you for that end,” said Netanyahu.

Urso welcomed his comments, saying: “Italy aims to become the European gas hub and Israel must be the point of strength for gas production.”

Other options to bring Israeli gas to Europe include the EastMed project, the construction of a largely underwater pipeline nearly 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles) long, to connect Israel’s offshore gas fields with southern Europe through Cyprus and Greece.

The gas would then be transported via the Poseidon pipeline to Otranto in southern Italy. But the six-billion-euro ($6.35-billion) project is only expected to be up and running sometime between 2025 and 2027.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni in Rome’s Palazzo Chigi, March 10, 2023 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu has been the target of criticism for the timing of the trip, the second in as many months that saw him meet in a European capital with a country’s leader, then spend the Jewish Sabbath staying in an elegant hotel on the taxpayer’s dime.

A senior Israeli official dismissed the claim, saying that Israel told the Italians that Netanyahu couldn’t come from Monday to Wednesday because of votes in the Knesset, and that Friday afternoon was the only time that worked for both parties.

Netanyahu is set to fly back overnight between Saturday and Sunday. He will be heading to Berlin next Wednesday and is expected to visit London at the end of the month.

AFP contributed to this report. 

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