It’s no secret: The Italian population in Israel and Silvio Berlusconi have been involved in a love affair for decades.
On March 4, when the Italian people went to the polls to cast their vote in the latest parliamentary elections, the majority of voters in Israel chose Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, which included the anti-immigrant, conservative League. But numbers show that the support for the tycoon has become more tepid than in past elections, possibly due to a questionable alliance with the far-right.
“Berlusconi has always demonstrated a great attachment to the Jews and to Israel,” said Raffaele Steindler, an Italian living in Jerusalem. “I’ve voted for the center-right, for Berlusconi in particular, for the last 20 years.” Steindler mentioned economic policies as one of the reasons behind his choice. A cut on taxes, he said, is the best idea to give the country a fresh start. “The left and the unions have ruined Italy.”
Sergio Della Pergola, a demographer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told Tablet that “the vote of the Italian people in Israel reflects their thoughts on Middle East policies, not so much on internal politics.” Also, former prime minister Matteo Renzi is considered to be a friend of Israel, he explained, but he was likely to team up with more left-leaning parties and leaders that historically have not supported Israel.
In Italy, the Five Star Movement was the most popular party, but voters in Israel, as well as in many regions of the Italian diaspora, showed little to no interest in it. Della Pergola said that people abroad did not identify with the party’s message of protest against the country’s political establishment.
What is most interesting, however, is the drop in support for Berlusconi that has occurred in Israel since the last elections. Italians abroad have been able to vote by mail in the country’s general elections only since the early 2000s. In 2008, the tycoon got an overwhelming 73 percent of the votes, and in 2013 he got 56 percent. This year, he only reached 44 percent. One of the reasons of this drastic change might have been his choice to run in a joint list with the more controversial Matteo Salvini from the League. If they voted for Berlusconi, voters abroad would automatically support Salvini, too.
(The data excluded voters in Jerusalem, which were grouped with residents of the Palestinian territories. In this area, Renzi’s Democratic Party won the majority of votes.)
“The union with Salvini and Meloni [another far-right politician] made Berlusconi lose votes in Israel,” said Della Pergola. “Salvini says to love Israel. At a dinner I attended with him at the Italian ambassador’s house, he said that Israel is the most beautiful country in the world; but how can we combine it with his xenophobic views?”
In Italy, to the surprise of many, Salvini overpowered Berlusconi. Over the last few years, he underwent a transformation. From being considered an extremist, right-wing underdog of Italian politics, he has become the beloved winner of the north of Italy.
Salvini ran his entire campaign pinpointing North African and Muslim migrants and refugees as the main threat to Italy’s security and economic prosperity. If he agrees on forming a coalition with the Five Star Movement, he will become one of the most powerful men in the government.
During his nine years as prime minister of Italy, Berlusconi—now infamous for a tax-fraud conviction and his “bunga bunga” sex parties—was considered by the Italian Jewish population to be a friend of Israel. In 2010 he told Benjamin Netanyahu that his “greatest desire,” as long as he had a role in politics, was to “bring Israel into membership of the European Union.”
“The center-right coalition is the only one that has openly declared its unconditional support [for Israel],” said 35-year-old Rohi Fadlun, an Italian voter who lives in Tel Aviv. This support applies “both to the historic leaders, like Berlusconi, and to the new ones, like Salvini, whom the press has falsely labeled as racist.”
Fadlun said that he did not consider casting his vote for the Five Star Movement, mainly because of its strongly welfarist policies; in fact, he advocates for less intrusion of the government in the citizens’ everyday life. The candidates of the Movement were “objectively incompetent,” he added. “They have often expressed their support for the BDS movement.”
As the leaders of Italy attempt to form new alliances—which are necessary to form the next government—it’s worth taking a step back and observe the map of the election results, which show an evenly split nation. The north supported the League and the south supported the Five Star Movement.
“It feels like we’ve returned to pre-unification Italy,” said Della Pergola.
A similar division between north and south occurred in 1946, when northern half of the country voted for Italy to become a republic, and the southern half voted for the monarchy. “The concept of Italy as a whole is over,” he said.
Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States.