The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel strengthens its ties with the West’s far right

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There was a time when politicians like Italy’s Matteo Salvini would have been shunned in Israel. But that time is not now. Salvini, the Italian interior minister and leader of the League — a far-right, ultranationalist party that’s in a coalition government in Rome — arrived in the Jewish state Tuesday for a two-day visit. His trip, which includes a Wednesday sit-down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a stop at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, reflects a broader shift in global politics.

Under Netanyahu’s watch, Israel has amassed a conspicuous crop of illiberal allies. Some, like Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, represent political movements with histories of neofascism and anti-Semitism. Others, like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, espouse the agenda and rhetoric of would-be strongmen, promising the destruction of their enemies while scoffing at pearl-clutching human rights activists. (Both, for what it’s worth, seem intent on moving their nations' embassies in Israel to Jerusalem.)

They all seem united in their apparent support for Netanyahu’s government, one that is constantly battling against international isolation in the face of its ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In recent years, as the governing coalition under Netanyahu drifted further and further to the right, the once-unquestioned bipartisan support for Israel in Washington has started to crack. Members of Netanyahu’s cabinet expressed public concern about growing numbers of American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, turning their backs on Israel. Relations with governments in Western Europe — which are frustrated by the dismal condition of the two-state solution and irked by Netanyahu’s role in attacking the nuclear deal with Iran — have also grown frostier.

So Netanyahu has courted new friends. These include Orban and Salvini, two European leaders who represent a hardening nationalist axis on the continent and have vowed political warfare against its liberal establishment. At home, Orban has been criticized for hailing Nazi collaborators and embracing anti-Semitic dog whistles in his campaigning; Salvini is coy about Italy’s fascist past and in his tweets recently nodded to the late dictator Benito Mussolini — who presided over the decimation of Italy’s Jewish population. Both grandstand over the threat of immigration, particularly the entry of Muslims, whom they openly view as a cultural menace.

In Netanyahu’s Israel, they have found a curiously kindred spirit.

“The Israel they see is not a liberal or cosmopolitan enclave created by socialists, but the nation-state of a coherent ethnic group suspicious of super-national fantasies, a tough military power and a bulwark against the Islamic world,” journalist Matti Friedman wrote in the New York Times, referring to Europe’s leading right-wing nationalists. “And these leaders have sought and found good ties with the right-wing coalition currently in power here.”

On Tuesday, Salvini took a tour of Israel’s border with Lebanon, ducking inside an apparent tunnel dug by the Shiite militia Hezbollah. He used the occasion to declaim against Islamist militant violence. On Monday, before heading out, he had linked prejudice against Jews to Muslim attitudes. “The growing anti-Semitism goes together with Islamic extremism, to which no one is paying attention,” Salvini told reporters.

Never mind that anti-Semitism among the far right on both sides of the Atlantic is as toxic as it’s been in years — culminating hideously in a mass shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. A host of American politicians and commentators, including many Jewish Americans, rebuked President Trump for whipping up the sort of hysterical right-wing nationalism that fueled the attack, but Netanyahu’s government and his ambassador in Washington went out of their way to defend Trump in the aftermath.

“For the prime minister, as well as his backers in Washington, criticism of Israel is the only form of anti-Semitism that matters,” noted Slate’s Joshua Keating.

A case in point appears to be Netanyahu’s willingness to accommodate Holocaust revisionism on the part of right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, which have more vocally backed the Jewish state in recent years. Meanwhile, Israel is allegedly pressuring other governments and foreign charities to cut funding to left-wing organizations within Israel that advocate for Palestinian rights and has lodged a complaint with German authorities over a Jewish museum in Berlin that deigned to show an Arab perspective on Jerusalem.

The strident ideology behind Netanyahu’s agenda alarms more-liberal supporters of Israel in the United States. “It’s extremely disturbing that Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli government are embracing right-wing leaders with xenophobic ideologies and authoritarian leanings — and providing cover for those leaders' anti-Semitic dogwhistles and affiliations,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-leaning Jewish American group J Street, in an email to Today’s WorldView.

“In their zeal to maintain the occupation and reject all criticism of its policies towards the Palestinians, the Israeli Right clearly feels kinship with other ultranationalist leaders who are demonizing ethnic minorities, civil society groups and democratic institutions,” Ben-Ami continued. “By standing with the likes of Orban and Salvini, the Israeli government is ignoring the deep concerns of European Jewish leaders, and forgetting the historical lesson that any government which targets minorities and undermines liberal democracy is ultimately a threat to the Jewish people.”

Salvini, Orban and others in their cohort angrily shrug off charges of anti-Semitism, in part by pointing to their support for the Israeli state. That may be music to the ears of Netanyahu, whom Salvini meets on Wednesday. But it disturbs others in Israel who see the ghosts of the past circling once more.

“There is distress here, and even anger,” a staff member at Yad Vashem told Friedman, “because many of us see a collision between what we believe are the lessons of the Holocaust and what we see as our job, and between the way Yad Vashem is being abused for political purposes.”

One person whom Salvini won’t meet is Israeli President Reuben Rivlin, a symbolic figure who has stood apart from Netanyahu. “It is impossible to say we admire the State of Israel and we want ties with the State of Israel but we are neo-fascists,” Rivlin said in an interview with CNN last month, referring to European far-right politicians. He warned that hatred of minorities will “corrupt societies.” It’s not clear whether the Israeli prime minister got the memo.

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