Bepi Pezzulli
International counsel & foreign policy adviser

Italy’s Policy Shift: Return to Equidistance?

The Gaza Strip (Credit: Mohammed Ibrahim - Unsplash)

In an unexpected diplomatic manoeuvre, Italy’s government rolled out the red carpet for the new Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Mustafà, a move suggesting a potential pivot in its Middle Eastern policy. This grand reception, orchestrated by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, stands in stark contrast to Italy’s recent staunch alignment with Israel, hinting at a revival of the old “equidistance” doctrine. This stance, once championed by former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, emblematic of Italy’s political acrobatics, has historical roots tracing back to leaders like Giulio Andreotti, Bettino Craxi, and Aldo Moro.

In a gesture of further goodwill, Italy also announced the resumption of funding for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, a decision made after a hiatus triggered by allegations of UNRWA employees’ involvement in the Hamas-led massacre of October 7. Tajani announced the allocation of 35 million euros for Palestinian aid, repeating Italy’s historical tendency for diplomatic somersaults amidst Middle Eastern crises.

Unfortunately, the recent actions, when conjoined, tantamount to a public declaration, positioning Italy amidst ambiguous terrain in the Middle East.

Meloni reaffirmed this altered course in a recent interview on Rai 3’s ‘In 1/2 Hour.’  She articulated a dual sentiment, acknowledging apprehension for the increasing threats to Israel’s security while simultaneously advocating for an immediate ceasefire. Criticism was directed towards the ongoing operations in Rafah, underscoring the urgent need to prioritize peace and dialogue over military escalation. “The underlying anti-Semitism is deeply concerning,” she remarked, “yet Israel faces the peril of succumbing to the snares laid by extremists. Adherence to international law is imperative. We advocate for a sustainable ceasefire and the liberation of all captives. Halting an Israeli intervention in Rafah is of paramount importance. Bolstering the Palestinian Authority is indispensable for fostering a resilient and enduring peace.”

In short order, Defence Minister Guido Crosetto echoed Meloni’s concerns over Israel’s actions but took a more stringent stance, condemning Israel’s behaviour in Rafah with even greater severity. Crosetto expressed grave concerns regarding Israel’s actions, saying “they perpetuate animosity against Israel and impact future generations adversely.” He censured Israel for failing to differentiate between Hamas and the Palestinian populace. Crosetto also drew parallels between the situations in the Middle East and Ukraine, emphasizing the international community’s limited influence on unilateral state actions. He deplored the disregard for the rights of innocent civilians , underlining the imperative for a novel strategy to address the Palestinian predicament. Crosetto requested Israel to exercise restraint and emphasized the pressing need for conflict resolution to avert further escalation. He cautioned against the perils of a protracted war and underscored the significance of global solidarity in confronting crises. Finally, condemning Israel’s actions in Rafah, Crosetto called for a “more justifiable and equitable approach” to the conflict, advocating for a path towards “sustainable peace.”

Unfortunately, both Meloni’s and Crosetto’s positions are flawed. While Meloni’s call for an immediate ceasefire may seem appealing in its emphasis on safeguarding civilian lives, her failure to fully address the existential threats facing Israel undermines the gravity of the situation. By advocating for a cessation of Israeli military operations without adequately addressing the relentless barrage of rocket attacks launched by extremist factions targeting Israeli civilians, Meloni’s stance risks undermining Israel’s fundamental right to self-defense. Furthermore, her apparent downplaying of the complexities of the conflict and the ongoing security challenges faced by Israel may inadvertently embolden extremist groups and undermine Israel’s security interests in the long run.

Crosetto’s take is equally misguided. While seemingly empathetic towards innocent civilians, he overlooks fundamental realities of the conflict. By drawing parallels between the Middle East and Ukraine, he dangerously simplifies the complex dynamics at play, ignoring the unique historical, political, and security challenges facing Israel. Equating Israel’s defensive measures against Hamas, a designated terrorist organization committed to its destruction, with the situation in Ukraine undermines Israel’s right to self-defense and misrepresents the nature of the conflict. Furthermore, Crosetto’s call for Israel to differentiate between Hamas and the Palestinian populace demonstrates a misunderstanding of the situation on the ground. Hamas embeds itself within civilian populations, cynically using them as human shields while indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians. Expecting Israel to make such a distinction in the heat of conflict is not only unrealistic but also endangers Israeli lives by hampering its ability to neutralize legitimate threats. Moreover, Crosetto’s plea for empathy towards Palestinians disregards Hamas’s role in perpetuating their suffering. Hamas’s rejection of peace, use of terrorism, and diversion of humanitarian aid for military purposes directly contribute to the Palestinian issues. Ignoring these realities and placing undue blame on Israel not only absolves Hamas of responsibility but also undermines efforts to address the root causes of the conflict and achieve genuine peace. While advocating for conflict resolution and global solidarity may sound noble, Crosetto’s condemnation of Israel’s actions in Rafah lacks nuance and ignores the necessity of defensive measures to protect Israeli civilians from terrorist attacks. Instead of urging restraint from Israel, he should be calling for Hamas to cease its aggression and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Until Hamas renounces violence and embraces peace, any path towards sustainable peace will remain elusive, and Israel will have no choice but to defend itself against existential threats.

Speculations suggest that Italy’s policy shift may be politically motivated due to its suspicious timing. There is skepticism regarding Italy’s genuine intentions versus political expediency, particularly in the lead-up to European elections where the Israeli-Palestinian issue looms large. Questions arise about the coherence of Italy’s strategy, highlighted by its contradictory decision to cut off humanitarian aid to Gaza while signalling support for Palestinian causes.

As Italy navigates its evolving role in the Middle East, the international community watches with keen interest, wary of the historical pitfalls of Italy’s diplomatic acrobatics. Although this may be electoral politicking, it still carries negative consequences as international reputation is crucial. Policy ambiguity, especially when not supported by substantial hard and soft power, is detrimental. Italy, lacking both military might and significant diplomatic influence, risks undermining its credibility on the global stage. A coherent and consistent foreign policy is essential for maintaining respect and influence internationally, and Rome’s current approach could harm its standing and effectiveness in addressing critical issues.

About the Author
Giuseppe Levi Pezzulli ("Bepi") is a Solicitor specialised in International financial law and a foreign policy scholar. His research interest is economic statecraft. In 2018, he published "An alternative view of Brexit" (Milano Finanza Books), which investigates the economic and geopolitical implications of Brexit. In 2023, "Brave bucks" (Armando Publishing House), which highlights the role of private capital in the industrial policy mix. Formerly an Editor-in-Chief of La Voce Repubblicana; is a columnist for the Italian daily financial newspaper Milano Finanza; a pundit for the financial TV channel CNBC; and a Middle East analyst for Longitude magazine. He received degrees at Luiss Guido Carli in Rome (LLB), New York University (LLM), and Columbia University (JD).
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