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Scene one: Monday, 9 A.M. at Yad Vashem. The first stop for Gianfranco Fini, Italy's deputy premier and head of the post-fascist National Alliance party, in his official visit to Israel this week. Escorted by dozens of reporters and photographers, most of them from Italy, Fini walks alongside the scaffolding of the new buildings at the Holocaust memorial site on his way to the main entrance. Wearing a large blue skullcap, he walks beside Amos Luzzatto, the president of Italy's Jewish community. They do not leave one another for a moment, and it is sometimes not entirely clear - during these difficult moments, who has greater need of whom.

Scene two: Fini stands facing the wall dedicated to Nazi propaganda. Posters from Der Sturmer cover the wall. He hears explanations of the activity of that propaganda, how it was used to enlist the masses. Fini walks on and stops beside a saying by Heinrich Heine, "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." The explanations continue alternately in Italian and English. Luzzatto also whispers additional comments and clarifications from time to time.

The hubbub in the hall is irritating. Yad Vashem's spokeswoman, Iris Rosenberg, remarks that she does not remember such a clamoring of reporters. One of them whispers to another that Fini looks extremely stressed. "He must have been suffering from acute stomachaches for several days," chuckles the other in reply.

Scene three: Fini stands beside a poster depicting the actions of paratroopers from Israel who fell in Nazi-occupied Europe. One of them was from a family of Italian origin, Fini is told. The paratrooper's name was Enzo Sereni. The conversation turns to history that "remains current." "Here is an explanation of the problems that trouble us to this day," explains the guide as they face a poster portraying the cooperation between the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the Axis during World War II. Fini nods his head.

After laying a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance and visiting Yad Layeled, the children's memorial, the moment that everyone has been waiting for arrives. The moment of the "historic speech." The speech did not last for more than two or three minutes. Fini speaks about the atrocities of the Holocaust and about the need to prevent their repetition. He condemns "the shameful chapters in the history of our people," the "disgraceful, fascist race laws."

"It was a very powerful speech," said one Italian journalist excitedly. "It was surprisingly banal," countered another. "Six million people were murdered in the Holocaust. We did not come this far just to reach the conclusion that what happened was atrocious, that the race laws - which were made by those who caused the atrocity - were shameful."

No apology

"This was not the speech we had anticipated," admitted a Foreign Ministry source a while later. There were also signs of disquiet from the Prime Minister's Office. Indeed, it is hard to shake off the feeling that there was a missed opportunity here, one that may not repeat itself for Fini.

In an interview with Haaretz in September 2002, Fini declared his intention of coming to Israel and asking the forgiveness of the Jewish people. "As an Italian I have to accept responsibility, in the name of the Italians ... The Italians bear the responsibility for what happened after 1938, after the race laws were legislated. They have a historic responsibility ... [to] ask for forgiveness," he said.

Foreign Ministry officials noted this week that the media repercussions in Italy following Fini's words were one of the decisive factors that paved the way for his official visit. Many Italians praised Fini for his "brave act." Some called his words a "historic turning point."

Analyst Maurizio Molinari wrote in La Stampa, for example, that Fini's words, "break the taboo that paralyzed national memory in Italy for 57 years ... French President Jacques Chirac took historic responsibility in 1995 for crimes against Jews carried out by Vichy collaborators. Fini's acceptance of historic responsibility is, to the same extent, an opportunity for us to clear our national consciences. Our Vichy was the Salo Republic," he said, referring to the puppet regime set up by Hitler in 1943 in occupied northern Italy and headed by Mussolini.

But many others condemned the planned apology. The fascist militants were insulted in the name of Mussolini and his "genuine" heirs. On the other side, the old-time partisans, leftists and Jewish representatives refused to allow Mussolini's heirs to apologize on their behalf for crimes against which the anti-fascist camp fought.

Should Fini have apologized in the name of the Italians, who may not be ready yet for such a collective apology from a representative of the converted fascist camp? Should he have apologized only in the name of the fascist movement from which he sprang and some of whose heirs do not feel that there is even anything for which to apologize? Faced with this dilemma, Fini chose the easy path. He simply did not apologize.

Democratic values

In an interview with Haaretz at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, a few hours after his visit to Yad Vashem, Fini looked exhausted. The signs of the tremendous pressure he felt are still visible.

"It is shocking, terrifying," he says. "Only someone who has visited [Yad Vashem] can understand it. My conclusion from this visit is that I and my friends must do everything to bring the Italians here, mainly members of the younger generation. To give them a full awareness of the meaning of the Holocaust."

Would accepting clear and decisive responsibility not have produced great pedagogic value? What happened to the promised apology?

Fini: "I condemned, I condemned once again today [the crimes of fascism]," he said.

But there's a difference between condemnation - especially when you yourself relate to it as a repeated condemnation - and a historic apology.

"I think I already apologized, for instance in the [previous] interview with Haaretz. I also have adopted the words of [the president of the Italian Jewish community], Amos Luzzatto, which I liked very much. He said the question of apology is periodically abused, and that it's more important to focus on deeds than on declarations and apologies for the past."

Is it possible you were pressured by the hard-core fascists? There was an instance of a tape containing comments in favor of Nazi criminal Erich Priebke, which was distributed last week by a member of your party.

"I expelled him from the party immediately. That's what I will do to everyone who turns out not to believe in democratic values, friendship and dialogue between our nations, to whoever takes anti-Semitic or racist stances."

Does this mean there is no link between your speech and a secret agreement with party extremists?

Fini chooses to give an answer that's difficult to accept: "I wrote my speech here in the hotel, the night before my visit to Yad Vashem. No one saw it."

Nuanced policy

Fini rejects the contention that it is much easier for him to identify with the Israeli government, and with a "nation battered by terror" than to totally confront his past. He chose to view criticism of him as "the best proof that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. In countries where there is no democracy there is forced consensus and no criticism," he added.

Even so, although some of his Israeli hosts wanted to portray him as "more Zionistic than some of his critics here," it is still possible to detect a few interesting nuances in his very pro-Israel policy. Thus, for example, even though he - unlike representatives of other European countries - supports the construction of the separation fence, he notes that, "I told Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that he must clarify that the fence is not permanent; that it is a temporary measure due to the terror, and that this measure will disappear as soon as the terror is eradicated."

He has a similar stance toward the policy of ostracizing Arafat and European decision-makers who visit him: "The Palestinian prime minister must be assisted. Abu Ala holds that post, which means that Arafat should not be aided," says Fini. "Despite this," he adds, "it would be a mistake to expel Arafat."

Even when relating to the latest surveys on anti-Semitism in Europe and Italy, Fini chooses to steer clear of the interpretation given them by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Thus, for example, Fini does not attribute anti-Semitic motives for the finding that 17 percent of Italians would prefer that Israel not exist at all.

"In Europe and particularly in Italy, there is only an inconsequential percentage of anti-Semites whose motives are ideological and who support the supremacy of one race over another. Most of the others [who are wrongly portrayed as anti-Semites] oppose the Israeli government. The problem is that they do not differentiate between their legitimate criticism of a democratic government and criticism of the people who elected that government."

Beginning a new chapter

Italian Deputy Premier Gianfranco Fini's visit to Israel was accompanied by some unpleasant feelings. Some of them stemmed from the fact that Fini created high expectations and did not utter the longed-for apology that he had presented as a declared intention to be fulfilled in Israel. This is truly regrettable. Even so, a few of the responses that plagued him caused him and the whole issue a grave injustice.

In his meeting with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin - and in reply to the criticism in the media - Fini tried to clarify that the statements he made at Yad Vashem should be viewed as his acceptance of responsibility for the crimes of fascism.

At a press conference held after the visit to Yad Vashem - which for some reason was only for the Italian media - Fini agreed, while answering a question, to denounce the Salo Republic and to include it in the definition of "one of the disgraceful chapters in the history of our people."

In response to another question, he even agreed to recognize fascism as "absolute evil." Even if these statements were not included in his speech at Yad Vashem, they cannot be ignored. Two of the best-known experts on fascism in Italy, Prof. Piero Ignazi of the University of Bologna and Marco Tarchi of the University of Florence, describe the statements as "something new." Tarchi does not even rule out the possibility that they will cause a rift in Fini's party, the National Alliance. Evidence of their statements can be found in the reaction of Mirko Tremaglia, an Italian government minister and one of the "Salo veterans," who shouted "Mamma mia!" when told during an interview what Fini had just said. The announcement, just before this article went to press, that Alessandra Mussolini (the dictator's granddaughter) was resigning from Fini's party may be an indication that a major rift is in the offing.

Further evidence may also be found in the fact that the Italian media mostly referred to Fini's visit to Israel as "a historic event," a "victory for Italian democracy" and "the culmination of a personal turnaround for Fini, which has taken about 10 years." The left-wing La Repubblica newspaper went so far as to publish an editorial on its front page, stating that the visit represents the "final conciliation between Fini and the Jewish people, and between him and the Jews of Italy."

Fini himself actually refrained from using such terms as "the closing of a circle" and "culmination of a turnaround." In an address to the community of Israelis of Italian origin at a Zionist youth village, he said that his visit should not be viewed as the last word. "This is the beginning of a chapter," he promised.