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Italian foreign policy towards Middle East before, during and after the Six-Day War

Par Maria Grazia Guidetti : Docente di Italiano e dottoranda - Hebrew University di Gerusalemme
Publié par Damien Prévost le 04/05/2010

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This brief study aims at analysing Italian foreign policy towards Middle Eastern countries before, during and after the 1967 Six Days War. The choices made by Italy during the first 20 years of its history as a republic, concerning this geographical area, must be incorporated in an international framework of action which was essentially weak and of limited impact due to its numerous internal weaknesses (economic backwardness, military weakness, lack of cultural and political cohesion).

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This brief study aims at analysing Italian foreign policy towards Middle Eastern countries before, during and after the 1967 Six Days War.

The choices made by Italy during the first 20 years of its history as a republic, concerning this geographical area, must be incorporated in an international framework of action which was essentially weak and of limited impact due to its numerous internal weaknesses (economic backwardness, military weakness, lack of cultural and political cohesion).((Coralluzzo, Valter (2000) )"La politica estera dell'Italia repubblicana (1946-1992). Modello di analisi e studio di casi" Franco Angeli, pg. 364))

As will be explained in the following pages, Italian foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean region - beyond the various specific stages and events - was essentially pro-Arab (mainly because of the economic interests at stake).((ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi)  in 1954 started to work in collaboration with Egypt for oil exploration in Sinai.)) However, Italy also kept good relations and ties of cooperation with the State of Israel, trying to implement a policy of equidistanza (impartiality), as its advocates repeatedly defined it.

Before the war

Throughout the Fifties, Italian foreign policy towards the Middle East was marked by an ambiguous attitude, which often manifested itself as immobilism. Concerns with not altering ties with Arab countries, with which political and mainly economic relations were being kept - one must consider the oil supply - went hand in hand with concerns with keeping good relations with the new State of Israel which, in terms of mentality, culture and lifestyle was much closer to the Italian spirit than Arab countries.((Tremolada, Ilaria (2003) All'ombra degli arabi. Milano M&B Publishing))

The Italian attitude towards this area essentially did not change when, in 1963, the first centre-leftist government succeeded its centre-rightist predecessors. While, on the one hand, during the early sixties, Italy showed signs of economic recovery and had a dense network of commercial relations with Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries, on the other hand the prevalence of problems on the home front policy continued to bring about a lesser foreign policy.((Varsori, A (1998) L'Italia nelle relazioni internazionali dal 1943 al 1992 .Roma-Bari, Laterza, pg. 156))

The diplomatic opening of the new government in the Middle East was marked by an Israeli initiative. In February 1964, the Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir left for a journey to Paris and Rome, aiming at speeding up negotiations between Israel and the European Economic Community, with the objective of institutionalizing relations (...) and reaching a favourable position compared to North African and Spanish competitors, all countries which held a deeply anti-Israel approach.((Riccardi, Luca (2006) Il Problema Israele. Milano, Guerrini e Associati, p. 188)) Italy, which saw in Israel a dangerous competitor for agricultural exports, had no intentions of engaging in long-term trade commitments. Despite the reasons for the visit, on the said occasion Golda Meir decided not to insist vis a vis the Italian interlocutor on strictly economic matters. Instead, she shifted the focus of the talks to the topic of security, and pointed out that Israel was compelled to vast military expenditure to prevent any kind of attack on her. For his part, Italian prime minister Aldo Moro also had an interest in finding mutual points of understanding during those negotiations. He showed interest in knowing the position of the USSR towards the Middle East, a position that Golda Meir defined as accounting, USSR support the Arabs because they are many.(( Riccardi, op. cit. p. 191))

It is interesting to note how, at the end of the visit, the Italian foreign ministry pointed out with relief that the Israeli minister had not brought forward any requests with regards to economic relations". Italy wanted to retain friendly, but superficial relations with the young state of Israel.((Ibid))

Two months after that meeting, in April 1964, the new Italian foreign minister Saragat went to Cairo on an official visit. There he met with top government officials, to whom he pointed out that this was the first international engagement of the new government after the ones with major Western allies. Naturally, the main divergences emerged in matters concerning Egyptian policy towards Israel, in spite of which, however, the Italian foreign ministry decided to give a positive interpretation of the meeting. (..) we got a positive impression, we felt a more moderate attitude towards Israel.(( Ferraris, Luigi Vittoro (1996) Manuale della politica estera italiana 1947-1993. Roma-Bari:Laterza, p. 168))

1964 was also the year when Lyndon Johnson took office at the White House and there were changes in US foreign policy towards Israel. The young Jewish state could, at last, show its Arab enemies that it was no longer isolated, but had on its side the most important leader among Western nations.((Shlaim, Avi  (2003) Il muro di ferro. Israele e il mondo arabo. Bologna: Il Ponte, pp. 260, 261)) The United States wanted to keep an apparently moderate foreign policy in the Middle East, in order to avoid negative repercussions both in the Arab world - especially by those who did not identify with Nasserism and its position - and in the Soviet bloc. For this reason, they decided to supply weapons to Israel (tanks in this case) via indirect ways. Weapons reached their destination through various Nato countries, mainly Germany via Italy - where the transaction, however, had to remain absolutely confidential. As Peres said: Only three people - Defence Minister Andreotti, his intelligence chief and the deputy intelligence chief would be informed of the ultimate tank destination. Also in the following months Israel continued to assert the advisability of keeping Italian involvement to the minimum, as it held that the Arab claim kept taking its toll on Italian policy.((Riccardi, op cit p. 196))

In those years, the concerns of the Italian government with not showing excessive favours towards Israel found the support of its Atlantic allies (NATO). Also for them control over arms was very important, it was essential not to excessively tilt the balance in favour of Israel, in order not to radicalize Nasser's position, as well as the USSR presence in the Mediterranean. When prime minister Moro and foreign minister Fanfani went to Washington for a state visit in April 1965, they also discussed the issue of the Middle East and its arms needs. On that occasion, again, it was easy for Italy to line up with the USA, which held a "policy of double balance - that is trying to prevent a clash between Arabs and Israelis as well as among Arab countries themselves, according to the origin of their arms.((Riccardi, op. cit p. 200))

Since the installation in office of the centre-leftist government (1963), Italian foreign policy towards the Middle East had undergone significant changes compared to the previous decade. Italy had accepted that Israel was an unavoidable player in the overall equilibrium - a stronghold of Western interests in the Middle East.

However, in the two-year period that preceded the Six Day War, Italy continued to act according to its double-way logic.

In October 1966, the new Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban travelled to Rome and, during talks with Italian prime minister Moro, insisted, just like Golda Meir had done two years before, that Italy should not put obstacles in the way of the association of the Jewish State with the European Economic Community.((Varsori, op. cit p. 165))

Shortly afterwards, the Egyptian foreign minister Riad also arrived in Rome. Fanfani reasserted with him the traditional Italian line of action: respect of the independence and autonomy of all the peoples of the Middle East, active participation in order to preserve the best relations amongst them, (..) with the steady intention of working together directly on the development of the countries of the Middle East.((Ministro degli Affari Esteri Italia e Medio Oriente (1967-1973)  in Riccardi, op. cit. p. 203)) This visit was followed by the arrival of deputy prime minister Khalil, who had the objective of deepening economic relations between the two countries.

In March 1967, the Italian foreign minister also visited Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. In Lebanon and Jordan, talks held with officials proved positive and inspired by broad concurrence; the situation, however, was harder in Iraq and the visit was marked by clear dissent over the Palestinian issue. Nonetheless, Italy did not give up on its intent of combining its friendship with Arab countries with the recognition of Israel's right to exist as its own state.((Ferraris, op. cit. p.168))

During the war

In the late spring of 1967 the Italian government, faced with a worsening situation in the Middle East, did not take any particular initiative, it chose to continue its policy of friendship towards everyone.

When Egyptian president Nasser, on 17th May 1967, asked the United Nations to evacuate its peacekeepers, who had been deployed in Sinai since the end of the 1956 Suez Crisis, Fanfani pointed out to the Egyptian ambassador the concerns of the Italian government.

The answer he got was: It's Israel that threatens Syria.

On 22nd May, Nasser announced the decision of closing the Straits of Tiran to ships sailing to and from Israel. To the Italian foreign minister, it was a clear sign that this step could have been the point of no return in the crisis. On 23rd May, Fanfani reconfirmed in parliament that his policy in dealing with the crisis was based on "advice of moderation and wisdom directed to all parties involved, but above all it was based on the unconditional support to the activity of mediation that UN Secretary General U. Thant was about to engage in. This was the first manifestation of what was to become the Italian position during and after the war: to go along the way of common security, entrusting the UN with solving the crisis.((Tosi, Luciano (2003)  L'Italia e la cooperazione internazionale nel Mediterraneo. Bologna: Il Mulino. p. 184)) – This choice was the only possible compromise among the different components of the government majority: the Christian Democratic party, which was traditionally pro-Arab, the Socialists together with the Republican parties, who were closer to Israel's position.

On the same day, 23rd May, Fanfani also met with the Israeli ambassador, who delivered a personal message from Abba Eban: Israel would have reacted to the first Egyptian attempt to stop an Israeli ship or a ship from a different country carrying strategic material sailing to Israel by attacking the United Arab Republic: (...) the Israeli Government, concerned with the massing of Egyptian forces at the border, was considering the launch of a preventive attack against them.((Minute of the conversation between  the Italian  min.  and the Israeli ambassador,  in Riccardi, op.  cit. p. 207)) The Israeli diplomat did not do anything to alleviate the concerns of the Italian minister, who asked him in any case to persuade his government not to "accomplish any hasty actions".

During the same time, UN Secretary-General U Thant started his own peace mission in Cairo; Fanfani showed his support to the initiative and urged him to emphasize the good name of Italy, which had been the only Mediterranean country to supply Egypt with a considerable assistance, also in financial terms.((Minute of the meeting between the Italian  min. and UN Secretary General, in Riccardi, op. cit. p. 208))

Great Britain, with the backing of the United States of America, suggested the implementation of an emergency plan in order to offer protective passage of merchant ships towards the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran (Declaration of Maritime Nations). Fanfani responded to this suggestion stating that Italian adherence would be unlikely, because the policy adopted by Italy in its activity of moderation was in the sense of seeing détente within the framework of the United Nations.((Note by the Min. Fanfani, in Riccardi, op. cit.  p. 209))

Between the end of May and the beginning of June, Fanfani, who firmly believed that Italy should still present itself to the Arab countries as a trustworthy interlocutor, met in Rome with Syria foreign minister Makhos. On this occasion, he reconfirmed that any decision was to be taken within the UN and then urged Iraq foreign minister Al Pachachi to go to the UN in order to attempt a diplomatic action that contributed to avoiding the conflict.

On 29th May, he met again with the Israeli ambassador in order to inform him of his actions of mediation. Avriel was not particularly impressed; he thanked Fanfani but reasserted that, by prolonging the wait, Israel could have lost the advantages of the initiative.((Note by the  Min. Fanfani, in Riccardi, op. cit. p. 211))

The intensification of the Middle Eastern crisis had also ignited a political debate on the home front. Public opinion was mostly pro-Israel, while political parties held more complex positions. The Communist Party declared its support to anti- imperialist Arab movements; in the government majority- as we wrote - the Republicans supported Israel unconditionally, while the Socialists were partly pro-Israel and partly supportive of Fanfani and of the Christian Democrats who were pro-Arab.

On 5th June, after the war had started, Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol had a letter delivered to Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, in which he informed the latter of the beginning of the operations and indirectly criticized the policy of the Italian government: In the past weeks I have received several pleas to show patience and restraint.(...) our restraint has been of no use.

On 6th June, the Israeli embassy informed the Italian government, with the clear intent of notifying the Vatican, that instructions had been given to troops fighting in the Jerusalem area to avoid damages to holy places at all costs, and to take all possible measures to avoid damages to the said places by Jordanian forces.(( Note by the Min. in Riccardi, op. cit.  p. 214))

In those days, Italy continued to engage in undertakings aimed at activating some kind of international intervention that would halt the fighting. Besides ineffectively calling on the parties to stop the hostilities, Italy also took a step towards the UN Security Council.

Fanfani tried to put pressure also on Egypt, whose new ambassador was being welcomed in Rome for the first time on 6th June.

The Italian minister pointed out to the Egyptian diplomat how a certain Arab propaganda about the destruction and massacre of the Israeli people" produced bewilderment in the Italian and international public opinion, and urged Egypt to avoid escalating the tensions.

The Olympian impartiality((Casalegno, Carlo Israele, nostra frontiera in Panorama, 1 june  1967, now availble in   Israele  giustizia e liberta', Roma, Carrocci  1980 p. 38)) of the foreign minister, which had been tolerated by those supporting Israel within the government prior to the start of the hostilities, in the days of the war was being openly challenged by the socialist Nenni, who sided with conviction with Israel. President Sagarat was also in agreement with Nenni, and saw in this war a victory of intelligence (the Israelis) over numbers(the Arabs).((Tosi, Luciano (2003) L'Italia e la cooperazione internazionale nel Mediterraneo. Bologna: Il Mulino p. 185))

On 7th June, Fanfani once again reasserted in Parliament the neutrality of the Italian government, but on that occasion and in that delicate moment he put forward the issue of the Palestinian Arabs, as his thought was guided by  a strong sense of human and social justice and respect of single individuals and peoples((Ferraris, op. Cit. p. 169)).  It is very likely that the term "peoples" had been added to "individuals" with a very specific intent  (.....) mentioning a people implies the recognition of rights, including those of a political nature.((Ibid p. 169))

According to those supporting Israel within the government (PRI and PSU), this was a hidden way to uphold the Arab cause.((Caviglia, D (2005)  La politica dell'Italia e il conflitto arabo-israeliano Nuova Storia Contemporanea, p. 18)) Once the war had started, they felt Israel should be considered as a member of the Western world suffering the attacks of USSR-backed dictatorships. Fanfani's opponents, moreover, believed that he had made a mistake by not adopting fully an Atlantic policy, of which the defence of Israel was an integral part. He had wanted to escape the difficulties of the cold war, but the outbreak of the conflict and the overwhelming victory of Israel questioned his political choices.

The stance taken by Fanfani was very different from that of the Italian president, who had repeatedly expressed his pro-Israel views. This very stance fuelled rumours about Fanfani's resignation, which prime minister Moro tried to thwart.((Riccardi, op. cit.  p. 221))

After the war

Once the war was over, the UN Secretary General - at the demand of the USSR - convened an Extraordinary General Assembly. Following divergences within the government, it was decided that the Italian delegation would be led by prime minister Moro, who guaranteed a mediation between Fanfani's and Nenni's positions. Prime minister Moro spoke in front of the General Assembly on 21st June. During his speech, he kept on stressing the neutrality of the Italian position and showed again his unconditional support of the work of the UN. On the issue of pacification in the area, Moro added that one of the basic unsolved problems was without doubt the age-old issue of Palestinian refugees,

la cui presenza e la cui dolorosa situazione costituiscono uno dei fattori dell'instabilità e della tensione esistenti nella regione. Si tratta di un problema umano, sociale e politico las cui soluzione esige generosita' immaginazione e coraggio.((Speech by On. A. Moro in UN Conference, Riccardi, op. cit. p. 227: Palestinian refugees, whose presence and whose painful situation represented one of the factors of instability and tension in he region. It is a human, social and political problem, the solution of which required generosity, imagination and courage. (my translation)))

It has been noted by many that this position was uncommon within the Western alignment, and surely was closer to the point of view of the Afro-Asian and socialist blocks.((Ferraris, op. cit. p. 69))

Moro explained that he was aware of the importance of the issue: leaving it in the hands of the Arabs, but mainly in the hands of the USSR, would have meant giving them a tremendous opportunity to put political pressure on the West. On the other hand, the Italian politician wanted to drive Western countries not to line up on Israeli positions. Moreover, he also intended with this stance to strengthen Italy's position in the international arena, as he was aware that the United Nations remained the only place where Italy could make its voice heard. Form this moment onwards, the Palestinian issue entered the Italian agenda for the Middle East permanently.((Tosi, op. cit. p. 187))

During the summer of 1967, the UN Security Council continued its diplomatic efforts to find a qualified majority that could express a resolution on the situation that had been created in the Middle East in the aftermath of the conflict. Italy, which was not involved directly in the diplomatic task, wanted to re-consolidate its relations with Arab countries, which had been significantly compromised during the war. At the end of July, the foreign ministry had already started to work to enable the recovery. In order to do this, it was necessary to act on economic and financial levels. This is indeed what happened, especially towards Egypt, with the accomplishment of a series of projects, such as the building of infrastructures, financial initiatives, archaeological missions, oil search and so on. Good relations were established also with other countries of the region, to the extent that Syria and Iraq allocated some concessions about constructions and facilities to Italian companies. All this appeared very positive to Italian politicians, to the extent that Fanfani stated that Italy was

"(...) again in the condition of carrying out its natural function of balance and progress in all of the Mediterranean region."((Riccardi, op. cit. p. 248))

When, after months of negotiations, on 22nd November 1967 the UN Security Council adopted resolution no. 242 - which many defined as a masterpiece of deliberate ambiguity((Shlaim, op. cit. p. 299)) - the Italian government readily supported that resolution, which seemed to fully encompass the suggestions of the Minister for UN relations Piccioni. At the General Assembly held on 14th October, Piccioni had indeed stressed the same positions already expressed by Moro on 27th June: recognition of the right of existence of every state in the Middle East, non-acceptance of land acquisitions obtained by military force, free navigation in the Suez Canal and in the Straits of Tiran, formal cessation of the state of belligerence and a solution to the Palestinian issue. ((See speech by On. Piccioni at the UN Conference on 4th  ott. 1967, in Ferraris, op. cit. p. 170))


The Arab-Israeli crisis leading to the Six Days War was a hard test for Italian foreign policy in the Mediterranean region. As explained above, it sparked bitter controversy among the political forces at home. In spite of this, the government policy adopted by Moro remained set on the principle of Mediterranean impartiality, which found constant expression in the UN and was implemented through the practice of bilateralism. It is precisely through this logic of impartiality that one must understand Italy's blunt rejection of Anglo-American pleas to adhere to the Declaration of Maritime Nations, which provided for the use of force in order to restore freedom of navigation in the  Gulf of Aqaba.

In addition, one cannot fail to notice how Fanfani employed the principle of neutrality as a cover to justify an unbalanced Mediterranean policy that, although respectful of Israel's right to exist, was essentially pro-Arab. A policy whose aim was - also keeping in mind the safeguard of economic and oil-related interests - the strengthening of relations with the Arab world, and more generally with the countries of the Mediterranean basin.((Coralluzzo, op cit. p. 287))



  • Casalegno, Carlo  (1980) Israele, Giustizia e libertà, Roma, Carucci Editore

  • Caviglia, D (2005) La politica dell'Italia e il conflitto arabo-israeliano, Nuova Storia Contemporanea

  • Coralluzzo, Valter (2000) La politica estera dell'Italia repubblicana (1946-1992). Modello di analisi estudio di casi, Milano, Franco Angeli

  • Ferraris, Luigi Vittorio (1996) Manuale della politiva estera italiana 1947-1993, Roma-Bari, Laterza

  • Riccardi, Luca (2007) Il problema Israele, Milano, Guerini Studio

  • Shlaim, Avi (2003) Il muro di ferro. Israele e il mondo arabo, Bologna, Il Ponte

  • Tosi, Luciano (2003) L'Italia e la cooperazione internazionale nel Mediterraneo, Bologna, Il Mulino

  • Tremolada, Ilaria (2003) All'ombra degli arabi, Milano, M&B Publishing

  • Varsori, Antonio (1998) L'Italia nelle relazioni internazionali dal 1943 al 1992. Roma-Bari, Laterza


Pour citer cette ressource :

Maria Grazia Guidetti, "Italian foreign policy towards Middle East before, during and after the Six-Day War", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2010. Consulté le 20/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/italien/civilisation/xxe-xxie/politique-italienne/italian-foreign-policy-towards-middle-east-before-during-and-after-the-six-day-war