Italian Deputy Prime Minister Minister Matteo Salvini arrived in Israel early Tuesday afternoon amid controversy over his hardline anti-immigration policies.
Salvini, who heads the far-right Lega party and also serves as interior minister in Italy’s populist government, is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top government officials, including senior security brass.
He is also set to visit the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, leading critics to call on the Holocaust memorial center to cancel his visit.
Salvini, seen by many as the de-facto leader of Europe’s rising far right, also 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 been eagerly embracing 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, even expressing support for recognizing Jerusalem as the country’s capital. But he has locked horns with the European Union as he pushes a hard line on migration, introducing a controversial crackdown on migrants fleeing Libya aboard smugglers’ boats.
In partenza per Gerusalemme, per incontrare il Premier e i Ministri di Interni e Giustizia.
Buona giornata Amici, soddisfatto del mio lavoro e felice del vostro sostegno???? pic.twitter.com/LpTgvqRPSb
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) December 11, 2018
Italian Jews are split on Israel’s embrace of the controversial politician.
In an open letter, a group of prominent Italian Jews expressed concern over Salvini’s visit, urging him to firmly condemn “antisemitic acts, oblivion, and trivialization of the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s by movements and parties belonging to the ethno-nationalistic far right in Italy and Europe” during his stay in Israel.
The group, consisting of dovish community members from across Italy, also demanded that Salvini speak out against efforts to harm Roma and Sinti and denounce “acts of racism in the public discourse.”
UCEI, Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities, did not reply to a Times of Israel query regarding Salvini’s visit and opposition to it from within the community. The group’s president, Noemi Di Segni, has joined the deputy prime minister’s entourage, and will accompany him to Vad Vashem.
The right-wing politician’s planned visit to the venerable Holocaust museum has triggered some criticism in Israel and Italy, with activists accusing the institution of “whitewashing” his nationalist policies and calling for protests. An online petition against Salvini’s visit had garnered nearly 1,200 supporters by the time he took off from Rome.
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.
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 then took off for Israel’s northern border, where he was set to receive security updates regarding the army’s ongoing operation to expose Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels.
In the afternoon, he is scheduled to fly to the capital for a meeting with the Archbishop of Verbe Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is also the Apostolic Administrator of Jerusalem.
In the evening, Salvini will hold meetings with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, before heading to Jerusalem’s Old City for a visit at the Western Wall. At this point, it is unclear whether he will be accompanied to the contested holy site by Israeli officials.
Later on Tuesday night, he will embark on a “graffiti and nightlife tour” through Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market that is scheduled to last until midnight, according to his official itinerary.
The next morning, Salvini will visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 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.