Italy and the Palestine Question

Italy and the Palestine Question
From Supportive Equidistance to Hostility

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Yasir Arafat, Bettino Craxi and Claudio Martelli

15 September 1982
Fondazione Gramsci
Angelo Palma

The position of Italian governments toward the Palestine question evolved considerably since the establishment of republican rule after the end of World War II and the downfall of the fascist regime. So did the policies of the main parties that dominated Italy ’s political arena during the second half of the twentieth century. Both the ruling Democrazia Cristiana (DC) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the main opposition force in parliament, changed their perspective on the Palestine question, reflecting the impact of both internal trends and international developments. Between 1948 and 1994 (what is usually called the First Republic), however, Italy tried to articulate an independent course, marked by the pursuit of a balanced position between the mainstream western support for Israel and the recognition of Palestinian rights and good economic–political relations with Arab governments. But with the end of the First Republic and the collapse of the traditional party system in 1994, the Italian position underwent some paradigmatic shifts that brought the country much closer to Israel.

From the Fascist Regime to the Early Years of Republican Rule

Before the establishment of the Italian Republic in 1946, the fascist regime held inconsistent positions toward the question of Palestine and Zionism throughout its twenty-year rule. Such shifting positions stemmed from several factors that informed the foreign policy of Italian fascism, ranging from the evolution of fascist anti-Semitism, the regime’s goal of forging a new Italian national identity, and its colonial aspirations that drove competition with the British presence in the Mediterranean .

Like much of the European political class of his time, Benito Mussolini held anti-Semitic views since the beginning of his political career, and the idea of a powerful, international Jewish organization influenced his view of world affairs. However, this did not necessarily lead to a negative position toward Zionism; in fact, between the 1920s and the 1930s, Mussolini declared his support for the Zionist project and met several Zionist leaders. The positive stance of Fascist Italy stemmed from the idea that relations with the Zionist Movement could be instrumental in undermining the British colonial position in Palestine and the Levant . For the same reason, the Italian government pursued relations with the leaders of the Arab Higher Committee (Lajna) .

Rome ’s position toward Zionism continued to be influenced by fascist racial views, which gained prominence as the colonial dimension of Italy’s foreign policies became more important, particularly after the conquest of Ethiopia in 1935–36. The need to define an “Italian race” questioned the status of Italian Jews, and the fascist overlapping of Jewish and Zionist identities contributed to altering the position toward the Zionist Movement. Despite the small size of the Italian Jewish community, the regime raised the problem of their possible dual identity and extended over Zionism the anti-Semitic cliché of the all-powerful Jewish international organization. However, relations with the Zionist Movement continued even after Italy’s aggression on Ethiopia; the regime favored contacts with revisionist Zionists (Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky 's followers) which, for their part, had often expressed their admiration for Italian fascism. As World War II erupted, with Italy joining the Axis powers in 1940, Rome foreign policy shifted its focus toward the conflict and its ill-conceived expansionist ambitions.

When Israel was established in 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba unfolded, the Italian Republic was only two years old, and the government’s main concern was the reconstruction of a war-torn country. What happened in Palestine was hardly a priority in Italy’s foreign policies while the country’s own Mediterranean projection suggested a cautious approach to the matter to avoid compromising relations with Arab governments. Although Italy would officially recognize Israel only in 1950, the Zionist Movement found some support throughout the Italian political spectrum and particularly within the Left.

The legacy of Italian complicity in the extermination of the European Jewry as well as Jewish participation in the partisan war of liberation against Nazi–Fascist occupation affected the Left’s view toward the Zionist project. The Socialist identity of the Zionist mainstream and the revolutionary imagery that surrounded the kibbutzim also contributed to fostering the sympathy of the Italian Left. For instance, prominent Italian communist philosopher and activist Toni Negri described how visiting Israeli kibbutzim in the 1950s played a significant role in his process of political education and leftist radicalization.

Some members of the PCI and of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) also betrayed an orientalist view of the question of Palestine by pitting the “revolutionary” Zionist pioneers against the Arab landowning bourgeoisie. This context might explain why before the official Israeli declaration of independence, some Italian leftist activists helped some local Jews to migrate to Palestine notwithstanding the British-imposed immigration limitations.

Italy’s pursuit of a new position in the Mediterranean would evolve over the 1950s in the so-called neo-atlantismo . This entailed making Italy the cornerstone of a new NATO positioning in the Mediterranean based on friendlier relations with Arab governments. These policies clearly served strategic Italian goals such as energy provision: Enrico Mattei , president of the State Hydrocarbon Company , is singled out as one of the main supporters of this approach as he sought more equitable contracts with producing countries. Such orientation necessarily determined a sort of colder attitude toward Israel compared to other European countries, and it was further strengthened after the 1956 Suez Crisis and the tripartite Israeli, French, and British aggression against Egypt .

The Suez crisis contributed to significant changes in the Italian Left’s position toward the Palestine question. Israel appeared increasingly aligned with “international imperialism” and with the Western camp of the Cold War . Although the PCI would never question Israel’s legitimacy, voices critical of its policies gained more room within the party as reflected in the opinions expressed on its mouthpiece L’Unità. After the 1967 War , the PCI would more convincingly embrace those analyses that saw in Israel’s expansionism the main culprit of the ongoing conflict with the Arab countries. The Israeli intention to retain the territories conquered during the war seemed to prove that and thus Tel Aviv appeared to clearly side with the US -led imperialist camp. In this context the emergence of an autonomous Palestinian national movement further influenced the leftist public opinion in Italy. As the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) rose to prominence, the Palestinian student community in Italy became very active in advocating for and supporting it. The multifaceted world of the Italian “extraparliamentary” Left was very receptive to the PLO discourse, and its organizations started to consider the Palestinians’ struggle like another chapter of the fight for national emancipation that Algeria , Cuba , and Vietnam had also being fighting.

Italian Equidistance

The Italian government’s cautious approach toward the Palestine question was further reinforced by the 1967 war and the emergence of the Palestinian armed struggle. On the one hand, Italy’s interest in developing a more active diplomatic role seemed to have a chance to find new avenues considering the consequences left by the war. On the other, Italy became increasingly a stage for Palestinian armed operations as well as actions by the Israeli Mossad . In this context, the Italian government, and notably, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led in those years by Aldo Moro , established more solid contacts with the PLO. Like other European governments, the Italian government allegedly struck a deal with the main PLO factions. According to the so-called “Lodo Moro ,” the PLO would have a freer hand for its political activities in the country in exchange for refraining from carrying out armed operations on Italian soil.

The Italian policies toward the Palestine question contributed to what the literature has described as a pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian stance compared with the position of other European countries. After 1973, however, Italy’s equidistance did not appear as markedly distinct from that adopted by other European governments. The economies of Western European countries were all seriously affected by the first oil shock following the October war in 1973 between Israel, Egypt, and Syria . The OPEC boycott and the decision to cut production had clearly linked the question of Palestine to the strategic provision of Middle East oil to European countries. This urged the members of the European Economic Community (ECC) to engage more actively in their relations with Arab countries in order to find more common ground on sensitive political and economic issues.

While the ECC and the Arab League deepened the framework of the Euro–Arab dialogue, single European countries nurtured closer relations with strategic Arab partners. In its contacts with oil-producing countries such as Algeria, Libya , and Saudi Arabia , Italy appeared more receptive to Arab requests on the Palestine question. As a result, throughout the 1970s the Italian government would call explicitly for an extensive implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242 , namely for the Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. At the same time, Italy also recognized the Palestinians’ distinct national character and their “quest for a homeland,” as Moro would say. Italy voted in favor of inviting Arafat to the UN General Assembly in 1974 and would accept a de facto official PLO diplomatic representation on its soil in the same year.

Italian and European efforts toward rapprochement with Arab countries would culminate in the Venice Declaration of 1980 . The declaration followed several statements released in the previous years by the ECC in which Western Europe headed toward a full recognition of the PLO as the relevant political actor for the diplomatic resolution of the Arab–Israeli conflict, unlike the US and Israeli position. The Venice Declaration explicitly called for the inclusion of the PLO in all negotiations based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338 . Despite the gradual Italian and European shift to a position more aware of Arab and Palestinian priorities, these initiatives did not achieve significant results. For all the Italian efforts to play a prominent diplomatic role to settle the conflict, the actual weight of Rome policies remained marginal as the fully American-mediated Egypt–Israeli peace process demonstrated.

In the late 1970s, Italy would see the definitive rise of Bettino Craxi as central political figure, first as PSI secretary-general in 1976 and then as prime minister in 1983. In the PSI, Craxi embodied a general shift on the party’s position on Palestine, namely, the abandonment of the traditional pro-Israeli line in favor of a more sympathetic stance toward the Palestinians. As head of government, Craxi continued the Italian efforts to favor a diplomatic solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and of the Palestine question. Craxi’s diplomatic activism was spurred by several international initiatives that followed the second Israeli Invasion of Lebanon and the PLO expulsion from Beirut in 1982, including the Reagan Plan and the Fez Initiative . The Italian government tried to exert some influence on the PLO aimed at favoring its rapprochement with Jordan and its participation in a possible Palestinian–Jordanian joint delegation. However, the international circumstances were even more hostile to a wider inclusion of the PLO in the diplomatic process as both the Reagan administration and the Likud -led Israeli governments of the time adamantly opposed an official recognition of the PLO. Craxi demonstrated significant autonomy in his policies toward the international crises that involved the Mediterranean space in the 1980s. The most notable of those was the so-called 1985 “Sigonella Crisis ” when the Italian government refused to surrender the Palestinian hijackers of the passenger ship Achille Lauro to the United States after US military aviation had forced an Egyptian aircraft transporting the Palestinian militiamen to land at the Italian air base of sigonella , in Sicily . Despite an emboldened activism in foreign affairs, however, Italian policies toward the Palestine question in the 1980s did not achieve significant results.

In the early 1990s, Italian politics would experience a major turmoil as an unprecedented corruption scandal led to the end of the so-called first republic and the disappearance of its main parties, notably the PSI and the DC. The collapse of the Soviet Union also ushered the transformation of the PCI in the post–communist Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS). As Italy’s second republic and new political actors emerged, so did a fundamental shift in the Italian position toward Palestine.

The Turn toward Israel

With the onset of Italy’s second republic in the mid-1990s, its governments started to revise their policies toward the Palestine question. During the second half of the decade, the PDS was the main force in several coalition governments that pledged to correct the traditional Italian equidistance, often perceived as being too close to Arab and Palestinian interests. The implementation of the Oslo Process surely played a role in pushing the Italian government to a supposedly more balanced position. However, a radical shift in Italian policies would only occur in 2001 as Silvio Berlusconi became prime minister for a second time.The Berlusconi government brought Italy’s foreign policy much closer to Washington in a time when the Bush administration unleashed its “war on terror” in the Middle East. The asymmetric conflict of the Second Intifada was interpreted by both the United States and Italy as another chapter of the West’s fight against Islamist terrorism. As a result, Rome deepened its contacts with the Israeli right-wing governments at the expense of contacts with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority .

In addition to foreign policy orientation, this shift was also rooted in the composition of the governments themselves and the ideological transformations of some of their key components. Alleanza Nazionale (AN) was a postfascist party which carried the legacy of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the party founded by remnants of the fascist regime after World War II. In founding AN, its leaders aimed at gaining renewed democratic credentials by ostensibly cutting their ties with their fascist past. AN thus sought a closer relation with the Italian Jewish community by displaying a staunch pro-Israeli position and nurturing strong connections with the Israeli political and cultural establishment: its leader, Gianfranco Fini , would visit Israel, disavow fascism, and apologize for fascist crimes toward Jews. The pro-Israeli turn also found a favorable cultural environment as Islamophobia spread on Italian media and society. Italian society harbored an increasingly negative perception of Islam due to popular discourses surrounding Italy’s participation in the United States “war on terror” as well as the growing hostility toward immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. In such a polarizing context, Israel would often be presented as a vanguard of Western interests and civilization in a tumultuous region, a force on the frontline in the battle for democracy. Against the backdrop of these political and cultural developments, Italy strengthened its relations with Israel by signing more cooperation agreements, supporting Israeli positions on the international stage, and loosening its relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Although most of the dominating parties in Italian politics evolved considerably after the 2000s, and notwithstanding the collapse of the last Berlusconi government in 2011, Italy’s position toward the Palestine question did not change significantly. In fact, the pro-Israeli trend was further strengthened as the PDS was transformed into the Partito Democratico (PD) and adopted a more centrist political platform once it returned to government in different coalitions over the last decade. Some of its key representatives like the then President of Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano , uncritically glorified the Zionist Movement and compared anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism, riding the wave of the “New Anti-semitism” debates. In 2016, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the PD affirmed his unwavering support for Israel, condemned the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, and did not reiterate the formal Italian position backing a two-state solution.

For center-left governments, the Palestine question was not a priority as relations with the EU and migration dominated the agenda. As the Italian political balance moved further to the right, parallelly to Israel’s, Italian parties such as the Lega Nord or Fratelli d’Italia (the most recent heir to the MSI and AN tradition) found a shared ideological ground with the Israeli right. Nationalist and supremacist discourses inform the political platform of major Italian right-wing parties, which do not hesitate to signal their support for similarly oriented Israeli governments. The Italian governments of all political orientations over the last ten years stuck to the largely defunct Oslo framework for peace and, in line with other European governments, maintained their support for a two-state solution.

In January 2020, the Italian government, then supported by a coalition between the Five Star Movement and the PD, adopted the working definition of anti-Semitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The IHRA definition has been widely criticized on the ground that it conflates anti-Semitism with criticism of the State of Israel. This definition, adopted by private and public institutions across Europe, has often been invoked to prevent public events debating the current situation in Israel/Palestine as well as to attack individuals, sparking fears for freedom of speech in different contexts. However, the adoption of the IHRA definition by the Italian government did not happen as a result of a participated public debate but rather as an alignment to the practices of other European authorities. Such policies, like the formal support for the Oslo framework, show an increasingly less articulated Italian approach to the Palestine question, possibly reflecting a deeper process of provincialization affecting public debates and politics in the country.

Selected Bibliography: 

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BRISMES. “Statement Regarding the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.” https://www.brismes.ac.uk/files/download/documents/BRISMES_IHRA_28012021.pdf, last accessed 21/09/2023.

Bucarelli, Massimo. “La politica mediorientale del primo governo Craxi: l’ultimo contributo italiano alla soluzione del conflitto arabo-israeliano per la Palestina.” In Craxi e il Ruolo dell’Italia nel sistema internazionale, eds. Antonio Varsori and Gennario Acquaviva. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2022.

Governo Italiano. “Strategia nazionale per la lotta contro l’antisemitismo.” https://www.governo.it/it/dipartimenti/coordinatore-nazionale-la-lotta-contro-lantisemitismo/noantisemitismo-doc-strategia, last accessed 21/09/2023.

Ianari, Vittorio. “L’Italia e il Medio Oriente: dal “neoatlantismo” al peace-keeping.” In L’Italia Repubblicana nella crisi degli anni Settanta. Tra guerra fredda e distensione, eds. Agostino Giovagnoli and Silvio Pons. Soveria Mannelli: Rubettino Editore, 2003.

Ledeen, Michael A. “The Evolution of Italian Fascist Antisemitism.” Jewish Social Studies 37, no.1 (1975): 3–17.

Lomellini, Valentine. Il Lodo Moro. Terrorismo e ragion di stato (1969–1986). Roma: Laterza, 2022.

Martone, Francesco. “Israel and Palestine. Renzo’s Guilty Silences.” Huffington Post, July 29, 2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.it/politica/2016/07/29/news/israele_e_palesti...

Marzano, Arturo. “Italian Foreign Policy towards Israel: The Turning Point of the Berlusconi Government (2001––2006).” Israel Studies 16, no.1 (Spring 2011): 79–103.

Negri, Antonio. Pipeline: Letters from Prison. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015.

Riccardi, Luca. L’internazionalismo difficile. La “diplomazia” del PCI e il Medio Oriente dalla crisi petrolifera alla caduta del Muro di Berlino (1973–1989). Soveria Mannelli: Rubettino Editore, 2013.