A blunder committed by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate has caused a diplomatic incident between Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) and Israel’s Ambassador to Italy.
Senator Vito Rosario Petrocelli, a senior figure of the populist party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, is known for his controversial antics. In the past legislature, during a Question Time with Work & Pensions Secretary Giuliano Poletti, Petrocelli was directed to leave the Assembly by Senate speaker Pietro Grasso after he showed a blank cheque to Poletti, which, he later claimed, signified that the government was abusing the Parliament’s trust. Yet the gesture that infuriated the Senate speaker further was that of the “charity dish,” when the consummate M5S politician offered Poletti a 50 euro cent coin. Petrocelli’s send-off was the first time in the Italian Republic’s history in which a party whip was expelled from a parliamentary session.
What happened last week, on June 16 managed to stun Italy’s veteran parliamentarians yet again. During a hearing on security matters held in video conference, Petrocelli, perhaps under the false impression that he was off-mike, made an ironic comment against Israel’s Ambassador to Italy Dror Eydar, because, according to Petrocelli, the Ambassador had been evasive in responding to a specific question. The question, rather provocative, was whether or not Israel constitutes a “nuclear threat.”
Unfortunately, much to Petrocelli’s embarrassment and amid the dismay of the Committee, with MPs visibly irritated, his mike was still on and everyone heard Petrocelli’s regrettable remarks.
“We have to adjourn this meeting,” exclaimed Petrocelli before continuing, “ Because we can’t yet figure out if Israel is a nuclear threat.”
“This is the problem with Italy,” responded Eydar. “It ought to understand the Middle East’s realities. This is not the right question to ask; the point is that we must continue to defend ourselves eighty years after the Holocaust.”
Petrocelli’s pas faux caused turmoil in Parliament, with the opposition parties going on the warpath. MPs of the League party penned a note denouncing the “sectarian and antagonistic management of the Committee” based on “ideology and bias.” MPs of Forza Italia also chimed in requesting that “the Five Star Movement apologise to the Israeli government and ask for Petrocelli’s resignation.”
Since rising to the upper echelons of power following the 2018 general elections, the MPs of M5S have attracted criticism for their lack of experience in foreign policy, along with their radical views vis-à-vis international relations. Republican party leader Corrado de Rinaldis Saponaro quips: “They embrace authoritarian regimes like China, Iran and Venezuela and cause constant frictions with key allies like Israel.”
Under this legislature, in fact, Italy has time and again moved away from its historic international alliances. The foremost example came in March 2019, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking before Congress, lamented that by signing the inconclusive Memorandum of Understanding with China, Italy was the first, and so far the sole G7 country, to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative thereby offering legitimacy to the Communist Party of China’s vanity infrastructure project.
Shortly thereafter, following the M5S leader Luigi di Maio’s visit to the U.S., John Bolton reiterated the message. The former National Security Adviser commented on his meeting with Di Maio via Twitter. He highlighted that the two discussed the following three topics: Venezuela, China and NATO. That is, three points of friction, because Rome failed to recognize the legitimacy of the interim government of Juan Guaidò, who was appointed according to Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, and immediately recognized by the U.S. and its allies. As for China, Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative despite the U.S.’s explicit disapproval. Lastly, on NATO, Italy has yet to meet the target of 2 percent of GDP with regard to defence spending to the organisation.
Tensions with Israel had already erupted over a vote by the UN Human Rights Council concerning demonstrations that occurred on March 1, 2019, which were orchestrated by Hamas in East Gaza City on the Israel-Gaza border. When the Council passed a resolution condemning Israel for “the excessive use of force against demonstrators in Gaza,” the M5S put pressure on the Foreign Office, which led Italy to abstain from voting against the resolution proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Former Israeli Ambassador to Italy Ofer Sachs was compelled to write a note expressing “disappointment at the Italian decision.”
If put into perspective, the Petrocelli affair, however, was much more than simply an isolated incident. This week, on June 23, in spite of the raging controversy, 100 M5S MPs tabled a motion to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to request that Italy take action to prevent Israel’s annexation of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. Untimely and out-of-context as it was, the motion – neither agreed to nor anticipated by the Cabinet Office – had the sole reason to close ranks and defend Petrocelli. Taking a page out of the anti-Zionist playbook, the 100 MPs demanded that the government “ensure the protection of the rule of law [to counter] violence committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, their property and livelihoods.”
The whole gimmick was staged to send a coded message. Its dark meaning is alas crystal-clear.