Text size

Gianfranco Fini, deputy prime minister of Italy and leader of the right-wing National Alliance, has for many years longed for the moment when he would touch down in the Holy Land and win ultimate "exoneration."

It would be, he hopes, an exoneration by the Jewish state that finally underscored the dramatic ideological transformation by himself and his party and when he is finally rid of stigma of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Fini's concerted and lengthy efforts to be made welcome in Israel were repeatedly stone-walled amid deep moral dilemmas. Two months ago, Italian helpers suggested leading Israel out of the moral-historic corner by carrying out "the Israeli exoneration" in stages.

The first stage was to have been tied to the 80th birthday celebrations for Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, for which it was proposed that Fini would take part as Italy's official representative.

But Israel objected to this "getting in through the back door" and argued that if conditions for the visit had ripened, it should be conducted in the public spotlight and include meetings with officials at the highest levels.

Haaretz yesterday learned that Fini will have his wish fulfilled at the end of the month, when he will be welcomed as an official visitor to Israel.

During the "historic visit," as it has been defined in Israel, Fini will meet the president, the prime minister, the Knesset speaker, the foreign minister and other senior government officials. He will begin his visit at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Fini, who once called Mussolini "the greatest statesman of the 20th century," is seen today in Europe as a respectable right-wing politician, a moderating image within Silvio Berlusconi's scandal-ridden government. Even in left wing circles in Italy there are those who call him "the country's most impressive personality."

Recently, he astounded Italy's political scene when he overtook the liberal camp on the left and suggested granting immigrants the vote. Many now see Fini as Italy's next prime minister.

In January 1995, at his party's convention, Fini pushed for approval of revolutionary declarations aimed at completely severing the National Alliance from its fascist past. In 1999, he paid a well publicized visit to Auschwitz and in 2000 he voted for a law marking a Holocaust remembrance day in Italy.

Israeli diplomats who have dealt with Italy over the past decade concur that Fini's pro-Israel positions are without blemish and deviate from the understandable historical constraints. At a B'nai B'rith convention in Milan this week, Fini was greeted with applause when he defended Israel's decision to build the separation fence and he again proposed that Israel should join the European Union.

"Short of converting to Judaism according to halakha, he has taken almost every possible step to move closer to us and the Jewish community in Italy," a Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said.

In an exclusive interview with Haaretz published in September 2002, Fini commented on the visit being worked on. He said then that he intended during his visit, to accept historical responsibility for the crimes of fascism and to ask the forgiveness of the Jewish nation. "Italians bear responsibility for what happened from the enactment of the race laws in 1938; they bear historical responsibility, and they must ask for forgiveness," he said.

Many in Italy viewed Fini's declaration of intentions as "a brave move" while others denounced the planned apology. During his coming visit, Fini will have to prove the Italy of 2003 is ripe to accept collective responsibility for the crimes of fascism.