Italian PM condemns swastika graffiti against rival as Netanyahu heads to Rome

Before flying, premier says he has ‘no doubt’ that Giorgia Meloni and her far-right party, which has neo-fascist roots, ‘have learned the lessons of history’

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni speaks during a press conference after meeting with The Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte at Chigi Palace government offices in Rome, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni speaks during a press conference after meeting with The Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte at Chigi Palace government offices in Rome, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME — Far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni condemned antisemitic graffiti directed at her main rival on Thursday, ahead of a visit to Italy by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his first since Meloni’s victory last year.

The graffiti, which included a swastika, appeared on a wall in the city of Viterbo and was directed at Elly Schlein, the new leader of the opposition Democratic Party. Schlein, whose American father is Jewish, has been the target of antisemitic attacks throughout her political career.

In a statement, Meloni expressed solidarity with Schlein, calling her a victim of a “shameful and indecent act,” and saying the “offensive” graffiti “is to be condemned with absolute firmness.”

Her office issued the statement as Netanyahu was heading to Italy on Thursday to meet with Meloni, hoping to leave behind one of Israel’s worst domestic political crises but facing the potential for protests in Rome as well.

Netanyahu’s planned overhaul of the judiciary has sparked two months of nationwide protests, with opposition surging and business leaders saying the overhaul will be ruinous for the country. Netanyahu and his allies say the powers of the country’s unelected judiciary must be curbed. His opponents say the changes will destroy the country’s system of checks and balances and push it toward authoritarianism. They also say Netanyahu, on trial on corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.

The Israeli leader was forced to travel by helicopter to the Tel Aviv airport Thursday to catch his flight to Rome after protesters blocked his route to the airport. After arriving in Rome, he is to visit the Jewish Museum in Rome’s ghetto and meet with the city’s Jewish community.

In a brief statement before taking off, Netanyahu said rallying international pressure against Iran’s nuclear program was the main goal of his meeting with Meloni. He also expressed hope that a compromise could be reached with his domestic opponents on the judicial overhaul.

Protests against his judicial overhaul were planned for Friday in Rome, according to the Saving Israeli Democracy group.

Pro-Palestinian protesters also planned a demonstration Thursday to denounce recent Israeli anti-terror operations against Palestinians, after a number of deadly attacks by Palestinian terrorists that have amounted to the worst violence in the West Bank in years.

In an interview published Thursday in Rome daily La Repubblica, Netanyahu said the protests were evidence of the strength of Israel’s democracy.

He said that during his visit he hoped to improve relations with Italy, including on the economic front, and suggested Israel could provide Italy with natural gas as Italy seeks to diversify its energy imports to reduce reliance on Russia.

Asked about the neo-fascist roots of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, Netanyahu said he paid attention to whether such political forces “have learned the lessons of history.”

“I have no doubt that Meloni and other leaders of her party have learned it, as they clearly condemn antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This is fundamental,” he said.

Italian Democratic Party, PD, lawmaker Elly Schlein listens to questions during a press conference she held at the Foreign Press association headquarters, in Rome, February 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Meloni, whose right-wing coalition won national elections in September, has made several gestures reaching out to the Jewish community amid questions about her party, which has its roots in the post-World War II neo-fascist Italian Social Movement. She has repeatedly spoken out against antisemitism and met with members of the Jewish community.

The Schlein graffiti was not the only antisemitic act that was reported Thursday. The word “Jew” in Italian was written on a wall in Ferrara, a northern city with an ancient Jewish community that was made famous by the novel and film “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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