The revolt in the Occupied Territories broke out at a time when support for the Palestinian cause was at a low ebb in Europe. The Italian Communist Party (PCI), for example, had for the past couple of years been giving priority to building relations with the mainstream Israeli left rather than with either the Palestine Liberation Organization or the left opposition in Israel willing to talk to the PLO.

The leader of the PCI’s right wing, Giorgio Napolitano, has shifted focus away from the Third World since he took over from Giancarlo Pajetta as the party’s “foreign minister” two years ago.

Choosing the tiny Jewish community of Turin as privileged audience for his reflections after visiting Israel in October 1986, Napolitano emphasized that the PCI’s positions “differed from those of the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah, on major international issues, on relations between communist parties in Europe and the world, and also on the appraisal of the Middle East situation and ways to unblock it positively.” In contrast, he found “many points in common” with MAPAM, both on the need for dialogue and peace in the Middle East and “a common sensibility on major problems of renewing the left in Europe.”

About a month later, in a speech to the same Turin Jewish community, Napolitano stressed that the Israeli left “is not only MAPAM: The Labor Party should also be considered a partner in dialogue with the forces of the European left, whatever the differences and divergences.” There was no mention of the more consistent champions of dialogue with the Palestinians, such as the Progressive List for Peace.

Napolitano’s critics interpreted this slide toward the middle of the Israeli road as just part of an overall PCI effort to get into Washington’s good graces. Reagan’s ambassador to Italy, Maxwell Rabb, is known in Italy primarily as an ardent Zionist. Moving toward a pro-Israel position could seem the best quick way of currying favor with the US embassy.

But the rapprochement with the Israeli establishment left is also quite in keeping with the PCI’s policy of rapprochement with the “Euroleft,” specifically with the parties of the Socialist International, of which both MAPAM and Labor are members. The Italian Communist youth federation, FGCI, recently joined the youth branch of the Socialist International. Shimon Peres, a pillar of the Socialist International, has always maintained privileged relations with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the French Socialists in particular.

By unveiling this shift to the Jewish community in Turin, Napolitano suggests that the PCI is responding to the wishes of a Jewish constituency. Such a suggestion quite outrages an anti-Zionist Jew like Professor Guido Valabrega of Bologna University. There are only 30,000 to 40,000 Jews in Italy, he points out, so it is not plausible that the shift is due to pressure from a “Jewish lobby.” Rather, a “Jewish lobby” is apparently being created as a pretext for taking a more pro-Israeli stance.

A Jewish community or lobby is a potential hinge to Israeli politics that can swing in more than one direction. Shimon Peres has been working to create support in the diaspora for his call for negotiations with Jordan. The PCI lent a hand by promoting Janiki Cingoli, member of a Zionist-Socialist group in Milan, from responsibility for “relations with the Jewish left” in Milan to head of the international section of the PCI in Lombardy.

Drumming up support at a January 1987 Milan symposium, the prominent Labor spokesman and former foreign ministry general secretary Shlomo Avineri argued that “right-wing Zionism is territorial and left-wing Zionism is social.” Labor and MAPAM “consider the social structure of the country more important than the amount of territory we control.” Writing in the PCI theoretical weekly Rinascita in January, Cingoli echoed Avineri in pointing to “the Israeli dilemma: Either the Jewish character of the state of Israel will be put into question, with the de facto creation of two national communities, or else democracy will be jeopardized as consequence of a separation between majority and minority reducing the Palestinians to a condition of apartheid.”

The catch is that Labor insists that they must choose which Palestinians are fit to talk to. Avineri dismisses Arafat on the grounds that he “does not control his organization.” But neither does Peres control Shamir, much less Gush Emunim. Peres’ project is merely an attempt to slough the job of policing the Occupied Territories off onto Jordan. The PCI, like most other European parties, is bound in the end to support the PLO’s right to represent the Palestinian people. There are other points of disagreement with Labor. In July 1987, at the head of a second important PCI delegation to Israel, Antonio Rubbi balked at backing the Israeli campaign for Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union. “In our opinion the question of Soviet Jewish citizens must be seen exclusively in the framework of the Helsinki accords,” Rubbi told the weekly L’Espresso. “Those who want to emigrate should have the right. The Israelis on the other hand insert the question into the negotiations on a peace conference, as if they had a piece of their own country inside the USSR.” Rubbi said it was “unacceptable to think that Israel has in the Soviet Union a sort of reserve population it can draw on.”

The PCI always rejected the November 1975 UN vote identifying Zionism with “racism” as a negative ideological approach. However, the effort to support a “better” Zionism gets into convoluted speculations about “Jewish identity” and a supposed Jewish mediating role between Europe and the Third World.

In June 1987, in a debate with Communist Sergio Segre, prominent intellectual Federico Coen blamed the break between Jews like himself and the left in 1967 on “Third Worldist culture” and on “erroneous forecasts as to the socialist development of Arab society.” The 1980s have seen the rise of a militant Western “rationalism,” particularly characteristic of a certain strain of socialism in the Mediterranean countries of Europe, which justifies a tough approach to the backward, “irrational” cultures of the Third World. The PCI’s new interest in Zionism looks all too much like yet another sign of a growing loss of patience, sympathy and compassion with the endlessly troubled Third World, and a self-satisfied turn inward toward Western culture.

Paradoxically, with the revolt in the Occupied Territories, recent neglect of the Palestinian cause hardly seems to matter. The events on the West Bank and Gaza have in a few weeks accomplished what years of militant solidarity failed to do: clarify the Palestinian problem in the eyes of the world. The solution is also clear in its broad outlines: Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and coexistence of Israel and a Palestinian state, with peace guaranteed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Since the uprising broke out, Italy has been the most active of Western European countries in promoting an international peace conference. The Christian Democratic, Communist and Socialist parties, as well as the smaller Greens and leftist Proletarian Democracy, along with the three major trade union confederations and various civic associations, expressed the consensus by cosponsoring a mass demonstration in Rome on February 13, 1987 protesting Israeli repression and calling for an international conference.

The Palestinian problem is now above all an Israeli problem — that is, a problem of the political incapacity of Israel to accept the need for a negotiated peace settlement with the PLO. If reassuring the Israelis is therefore more helpful to the Palestinian cause than protests on behalf of Palestinian rights, the time may be at hand to test whether the Italian Communists’ effort at historic compromise around the Middle East problem can contribute to peace.

How to cite this article:

Diana Johnstone "Italian Communists’ New Historic Compromise," Middle East Report 152 (May/June 1988).
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