By Jessica Buxbaum / MintPress News
Across Europe, far-right populism is surging. Right-wing parties with neo-fascist roots are part of governing coalitions or increasing their parliamentary seats. Yet fears of anti-Semitism rising in Europe haven’t stopped Israel from engaging with Europe’s extremists — a policy of the state even before its inception.
In August, Israel’s ambassador to Romania, Reuven Azar, met with the leader of the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians party (AUR), George Simion, sparking outrage in Israel and among the Jewish diaspora. The Israeli government has long boycotted the party over its anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denying rhetoric, yet the ambassador’s meeting appeared to reverse that policy.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen instructed Azar and settler leader Yossi Dagan to meet with the AUR party head. Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to MintPress News’ requests for comment on the meeting. In addition to this controversial meeting, Cohen met Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Antonio Tajani, in July, emphasizing strengthening relations between the two states. This development comes despite Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party, being sworn in as prime minister in 2022. The new coalition is seen as Italy’s most far-right since World War II.
While media and political pundits denounce Israel’s Foreign Ministry for a perceived policy shift, Israel has a long history of supporting fascist regimes and right-wing politicians abroad.
Israel’s Long, Sordid History With Europe’s Far-Right
Israel’s relationship with the far-right originates even before the state’s establishment. Zionist militant groups like the Irgun, Betar, and Lehi (all influencers of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party) were involved in fascist movements. Lehi tried to ally itself with the Third Reich in 1941, while Betar and Irgun received support from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
During a private conversation with Nahum Goldman, founder of the World Jewish Congress, in November 1934, Mussolini expressed admiration for Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of Betar and Irgun, telling Goldman,
For Zionism to succeed, you need to have a Jewish State with a Jewish flag and Jewish language. The person who understands that is your fascist, Jabotinsky.”
The admiration was mutual, with other Zionist leaders like Itamar Ben-Avi praising Mussolini’s actions.
Additionally, Jabotinsky, recognized as the founder of Revisionist Zionism, set up the Betar Naval Academy in Italy during Mussolini’s reign, where many of the Israeli navy’s future commanders trained. Several of the cadets were known to be supportive of Mussolini’s policies.
“Israel is actually grounded in fascism,” Palestinian-American journalist Ramzy Baroud told MintPress News. “Israel gives the illusion of representation of the Jewish people when in actuality it’s Zionism that defines the actions of Israel.”
What began as mutual appreciation soon blossomed into official government cooperation. According to numerous declassified documents from Israel’s State Archives, Israeli ministries have partnered with dictators for decades.
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For instance, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yigal Allon, met with his counterpart and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1975 to discuss bilateral agreements. Romania’s Tourism Minister visited Israel in 1984 to discuss future partnerships between the two countries.
Several Israeli prime ministers made official visits to Romania throughout the 1970s and 1980s during Ceausescu’s reign, including Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. These meetings continued despite Israel’s knowledge of Ceausescu’s oppressive rule and his anti-Semitic beliefs.
In addition to maintaining warm relations with European tyrants, Israeli governments have assisted in ethnic cleansing efforts during the Bosnian War and ongoing Azerbaijani crimes against ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh area through arms exports. Despite being fully aware of the Serb-run concentration camps for Bosnian Muslims, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government continued to export arms to Serbia in the 1990s.
Today, Israel is linked to Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi militia. The group was formed after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and was eventually absorbed into Ukraine’s armed forces. The group is accused of war crimes by the United Nations, and its paramilitary arm, the National Corps, is associated with attacks against local Roma and the LGBTQ community. Despite claims to the contrary, the Azov Battalion still uses the Wollfsangel symbol as part of its uniform, a logo widely used in Nazi Germany and which remains popular with neo-Nazis today. According to multiple reports, the Azov Battalion has used weapons manufactured by major Israeli arms firms like Rafael and Israel Weapon Industries.
In an attempt to whitewash the brigade’s image, an Azov Battalion officer, Illia Samoilenko, visited Israel on a publicity tour organized by local activist group Israel Friends of Ukraine in December. During his trip, Samoilenko met with Naama Lazimi, a Labor Party politician in Israel’s parliament.
Beyond Europe, Israel has supported authoritarian regimes in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. These relations often involve arms deals, such as the sale of arms and provision of military training to Chile during dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule from 1973 to 1991. Israel has also sold arms to military regimes in Bolivia and Guatemala in the 1970s and 80s. During this time, Guatemala committed genocide of around 200,000 majority indigenous people. Israeli arms were also used in the Rwandan Genocide and continue to be used in Myanmar’s ongoing genocide against the Rohingya people.
Forging Ties With Extremists
Romania’s AUR isn’t the first European right-wing extremist political party to connect with Israeli government officials. Gianfranco Fini, the former leader of the now-defunct neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, which was then rebranded into the National Alliance party, visited Israel in 2003. His party originated from Mussolini’s anti-Semitic Fascist Party. During his trip, Fini met with then-Israeli President Moshe Katsav, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then-Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, and ex-Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
With the recent political surge of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, party leaders have sought to establish ties with Israel to boost their legitimacy. In 2003, AfD lawmakers visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Holocaust Archive in Jerusalem. And in 2019, an AfD delegation visited Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and met with pro-settler activist Daniella Weiss.
Rafi Eitan, an ex-Israeli cabinet member and former Mossad agent, praised the AfD in 2018, stating in a video message to the group on Facebook, “All of us in Israel appreciate your attitude towards Judaism. I’m certain that with hard work and, more importantly, with realism, you could represent not ‘an alternative for Germany’ but an alternative for all of Europe.” He later expressed regret for his remarks.
Despite being anti-Semitic, these parties see Israel, the self-proclaimed “Jewish state,” as a strategic partner in furthering racist policies. As Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack explained to MintPress News,
On one end, they have anti-Semitic beliefs, but on the other end, they see the Israeli state as sharing values in the fight against radical Islam and immigrants from Africa and other places.”
And this thought process goes both ways. While the details of the meeting between Ambassador Reuven, Dagan, and Simion haven’t been revealed, analysts speculate its objective is to encourage Romania to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and garner support for Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank. This falls in line with past Israeli interests when engaging with authoritarian regimes. For instance, Israel’s state archival records from the 1980s detail the Foreign Ministry’s lobbying efforts in El Salvador to push the country to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 1982 telegrams from Israeli ambassadors to El Salvador, the officials wrote how they met with Roberto D’Aubuisson, the founder and leader of the far-right party ARENA, which was connected to widespread death squad violence in the country. Following these meetings, in 1983, El Salvador relocated its embassy to Jerusalem.
Israeli-American activist Miko Peled explained that while the meeting with the anti-Semitic AUR temporarily damages Israel’s international image, the state will prioritize its long-term agenda above all else, telling MintPress News,
If Israel thinks this is going to serve its interest, and if Israel thinks this particular politician is going to rise to power one day, and it’s going to be in Israel’s interest to have good relations with them, then they will ignore the anti-Semitism.”
Connections between Europe’s extremist regimes and Israel have often slipped under the radar, but Mack explains these relationships are entering the spotlight more and more now, given Europe’s far-right becoming normalized on the world stage by joining government coalitions or gaining more parliamentary seats.
“In the past, these relationships were behind closed curtains, but in the last government of Netanyahu, these relationships have become more public, more ceremonial,” Mack said.
In recent years, Netanyahu has established alliances with Europe’s conservative leaders, specifically within the Visegrad Group of States, which encompasses Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. His far-right friendships include Janez Jansa, the former right-wing populist Prime Minister of Slovenia, and Matteo Salvini, the xenophobic former Italian interior minister.
Experts perceive these connections as Netanyahu’s way of putting pressure on the European Union, which has become increasingly critical of Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. Netanyahu even implicitly stated this intention before flying to a summit in Lithuania in 2018,
I am also interested in balancing the not-always-friendly attitude of the European Union towards Israel so that we receive fairer and more genuine treatment. I am doing this through contacts with blocs of countries within the European Union, Eastern European countries, [and] now with the Baltic countries, as well, of course, with other countries.”
Not Just the Far-Right
While Israel has been insidiously tied to far-right establishments around the world for decades, Mack asserts this isn’t where attention should be paid, telling MintPress News,
There is too much focus on the relationship with the far-right and not with the center and leftist parties and conservative parties in Europe because they are criticizing the settlements, but they don’t have a different policy from the far-right parties concerning the settlements”
Mack pointed out how, just this month, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Cohen met with his Norwegian counterpart, Anniken Heitfeldt, a member of Norway’s Labor Party, which is currently part of the country’s governing coalition.
According to its most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing, the state-owned Norwegian sovereign wealth fund holds shares in 70 Israeli companies worth billions. The fund’s ten largest investments in Israeli companies are worth $1.8 billion. Several of these companies operate in Israeli settlements.
Despite Norwegian law prohibiting Norwegian weapons from being sold to countries at war or where there is a threat of war (like Israel), Norwegian-made weapons are used by Israel. This is because the law only applies to firearms made in Norway, while Norwegian arms firms based in other countries are exempt from this rule.
The Norwegian government has also taken pro-Israel actions in the past, such as choosing to ignore the UN’s database of companies complicit in Israeli settlement activity so a tourism company can continue operating in the country and cutting aid to Palestine over alleged incitement in Palestinian Authority textbooks.
“These unions are much more radicalized in comparison to the political parties themselves,” Mack said of Norway-Israel relations, telling MintPress News that,
So the far-right in Europe will support the settlements and maybe support the movement of the embassy to Jerusalem. But the mainstream and center-left parties are the ones that are preventing sanctions on Israel. They are the main enablers of Israeli apartheid.”