The Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Northern League leader, Matteo Salvini, has criticised the European Union for how it deals with Israel.
On the first day of his visit to Israel, Salvini praised Israel as a “bulwark of Western rights and values.” But he added: “The EU has in recent years been entirely unbalanced, it has condemned and sanctioned Israel left and right, for every step it took”. Salvini responded to a rebuke from his own defence ministry for describing Hezbollah as a terrorist movement, stating: “I don’t understand why they are surprised I called Hezbollah Islamic terrorists. I don’t think they dug tunnels dozens of metres underground to go shopping.” Salvini visited the North of Israel yesterday and was shown Hezbollah tunnels dug under Israeli territory.
Salvini is visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance centre, after a working meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He will not meet Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Israeli media have speculated that this is a deliberate snub in light of Rivlin’s vocal opposition to associating with what he describes as “fascist” parties in Europe, irrespective of their stance on Israel. Meretz leader, Tamar Zandberg, praised Rivlin’s decision not to meet with Salvini, although in a statement the President’s office put the reason down to “scheduling issues”. Scheduling issues were also described as the reason for Salvini not meeting with Palestinian representatives during his two-day visit.
Responding to criticism of his visit to Israel and Yad Vashem, Salvini said: “This is the fourth time I have come to Israel, and the fourth time I have been to Yad Vashem”.
Prominent members of the Italian Jewish community signed an open letter to coincide with Salvini’s Israel visit demanding that he denounce “acts of racism in the public discourse”. Salvini has described antisemites as “imbeciles and delinquents”, but has vowed to expel thousands of Roma from Italy.
Salvini’s trip is the latest in a series of visits by controversial right-wing populist leaders to Israel including Victor Orban of Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and the Brazilian President-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, with the latter recently announcing his plans to move the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem. When pressed on whether the Italian government would do likewise, Salvini was coy, saying “let me make this journey in peace for now”.