Yitzhak Laor has no doubt. “In Israel, Salvini is starting his campaign aimed at becoming the Italian Prime Minister,” he told us with full conviction when I interviewed him in Tel Aviv, at the same time that the Italian vice-prime minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was starting his official visit to Israel.
A poet, essayist and writer for the newspaper Haaretz, Laor, now 70, represents a powerful and constant historical voice in the country. He had recently returned from a trip to Italy: “I know Italy, and I went on this last trip not only for tourism, but also for political and social research. I tried to understand the context in which the advance of the populists has taken place.”
Why would Salvini start in Israel if he wants to become Prime Minister?
The behavior of European politicians is no longer very different from that of their US counterparts. In the US, those who aspire to the presidency or who are running for Congress know that their relationship with Israel, what they think of Israel and how they intend to cultivate the country’s strategic relationship with Israel are key factors for the success of their political aspirations. It is no coincidence that American presidential candidates always come here before the elections. Nowadays, even in Italy or in other places in Europe, a political figure, whether of the right or of the left, must declare themselves to be a true friend of Israel and forget about the rights of the Palestinians if they wish to pursue high ambitions, especially in foreign policy. Otherwise, they risk finding themselves isolated and sidelined.
But Salvini has always proclaimed himself a friend of Israel.
In the case of the Italian right, there is a particular reason to be hardline pro-Israel and deny the very existence of the Palestinian problem. The reason is the country’s fascist past, the collaboration between fascism and Nazism which is still weighing on the right-wing political forces. It is a burdensome past, which the people on the Italian right can nowadays claim to have wiped clean by declaring themselves allies of Israel and enemies of Islam. They visit the Yad Vashem [the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem] knowing that they will return home with a fresh image. Both Israel and, unfortunately, the European Jewish communities themselves are willing to testify to the suitability of certain individuals for public office, despite the fact that the ideas and programs these figures are bringing forward are imbued with racism. What is considered important nowadays [in Israel] is no longer whether a political leader is an anti-Semite, openly or secretly. The important thing is whether they have always declared themselves on the side of Israel. A few years ago, even Gianfranco Fini, a former fascist, received Israel’s blessing.
In Israel itself, there is no shortage of controversy regarding the warm welcome given by Prime Minister Netanyahu to figures such as Hungarian leader Orban, and now Salvini.
These are isolated voices, and don’t manage to make a dent in the legitimacy that is being bestowed on the European populist right. In Salvini’s case, we should also note an important aspect. I read in Haaretz that Salvini, when talking to the representatives of the foreign press in Italy, said that he should not have to justify his thinking and his actions whenever he goes to Israel. Essentially, Salvini is saying: I am what I am, and Israel is fine with that. He is absolutely right. That is what Netanyahu likes: someone racist, with neo-fascist tendencies and an enemy to Muslims.
Israel is increasingly becoming a role model for Europe’s political leaders. And not just on security issues.
I could list many reasons for this: because of the iron fist approach that [Israel] is using against the Muslims and Arabs, because it implements anti-democratic policies that many in Europe would like to imitate, because it is chasing away migrants and refugees without any scruples, and so on. I’d say that Israel is more and more popular on the Old Continent because it embodies the colonial vocation that is still a powerful force flowing through the veins of Europeans. The European left has been fighting it over the past decades; however, in my view, it is now resurfacing in an unmistakable way, riding the wave of rampant populism.
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