Famous and often admired worldwide, but also furiously rejected by much of the international establishment, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Rome last week after overcoming a formidable set of obstacles.
Before Netanyahu left Israel, the highway to Ben-Gurion Airport was blocked by protesters. He thus had to reach the airport by helicopter, leading the media to accuse him of indulging in luxury.
The pilots then refused to fly Netanyahu’s aircraft and a translator refused to translate his speeches. The fact that the prime minister waited until the end of Shabbat to fly back to Israel was considered bizarre and dismissive.
This attempt to deny the elected prime minister of Israel his basic rights of freedom of speech and movement was remarkably ironic, as it came from so-called “defenders of democracy,” as the opponents of Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms like to style themselves.
Netanyahu was aware that protests would be awaiting him in Rome as well, though they were small in number, mostly organized by left-wing Israeli youth. He also knew the media would follow him everywhere, hoping for any sign of failure or disapproval.
The disapproval was expressed very publicly on Thursday, when Netanyahu was welcomed by the President of the Rome Jewish Community Ruth Dureghello and the Chief Rabbi of Rome Roccardo Di Segni. But also present was President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni, who used her speech to crucify Netanyahu and his proposed reforms, as well as Israel’s counterterrorism efforts.
Di Segni’s main target was right-wing politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, but the immediate object of her ire was Netanyahu. She attacked the prime minister as if she had the right to define when an Israeli government acts according to “Jewish values.” She further accused Israel of abandoning and embarrassing Diaspora Jews. “So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious.”
Despite Di Segni’s display, Netanyahu’s trip actually went quite well. Indeed, the Pope himself said that he sees two possible mediators in the war between Russia and Ukraine: Israel and the Vatican, two territorially small powers with global reach.
On Friday, Netanyahu met with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has long expressed her support for the Jewish state through both words and actions. They discussed issues of great importance, such as the possibility that Italy will become the conduit for Israeli gas to Europe through the East Med project. This raised the issue of energy supplies, which has become essential due to the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Iran was also a major issue, and Italy might be willing to convey Netanyahu’s message that the Iranian nuclear program must be stopped to the rest of Europe.
In addition, Netanyahu met with Minister of Economic Development Adolfo Urso and around 50 CEOs of major Italian companies, who appear eager to engage in joint ventures with Israeli innovators.
This was a pivotal moment for the visit, because Israel was taken for what it is: A democracy that is now in a deep discussion regarding how its laws and government should be shaped. Israel was not slandered as an authoritarian or fascist state that must be taught a lesson in basic morality.
For weeks, Netanyahu has been publicly accused of being a fascist, a reactionary and an authoritarian leader, but the prime minister’s own actions disprove this. He has not interfered with his opponents’ right to free assembly, not to mention the rights of members of the military to protest. Nor has the ferociously critical Israeli media been suppressed. All of this indicates a vibrant, not threatened, democracy.
Accusations of fascism are par for the course when a government is a conservative one, but ironically, it is the opposition that is currently working to delegitimize an elected government while appointing themselves the defenders of democracy. Of course, it is legitimate to oppose the proposed reforms, but they can be amended, and Israel now has a bipartisan group led by President Isaac Herzog that is seeking a compromise, though this does not appear to matter to the protesters.
It is, in fact, quite clear what many of the demonstrators are really upset about. They simply do not like any government led by Netanyahu, particularly when his coalition includes religious, outspoken and sometimes aggressive figures like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. Nonetheless, Netanyahu remains the ultimate target of the protesters.
The truth is that Netanyahu is not a fascist, reactionary or authoritarian. He is a secular liberal democrat with conservative leanings, including a healthy respect for tradition and religion. He has certainly not led Israel back to the Middle Ages. In fact, he has modernized the country, fostering the high-tech industry that is the envy of the world, Israel’s extraordinary fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, a per capita GDP of $55,600, the promotion of rights for minorities of all kinds, and an open society for all who wish to participate. Indeed, despite everything, Israel ranks at number nine on the World Happiness Index.
But Netanyahu represents what the media and international establishment cannot stand, which is the victory of conservative politicians at the ballot box. Like it or not, Netanyahu has the support of the majority of Israelis because they see him as a moderate but strong defender of Israel against Palestinian hatred and violence, and a relentless adversary of the genocidal Islamist regime in Iran. They know that he convinced the U.S. to leave the nuclear deal with Iran and sealed the Abraham Accords with a series of Arab and Muslim countries previously hostile to Israel.
If the East Med consortium is pushed forward by the E.U. as part of a collaboration with the Italian energy company ENI to bring Israeli natural gas to Italy, this will not be only a matter of business, but a too-long neglected renewal of relations between Europe and Israel. After visiting Israel last June, former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi declared, “Israel can help Italy and Europe.” Meloni knows this; so does Netanyahu.
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is the author of Jewish Lives Matter.