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Italy's deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini, who heads the National Alliance party, told Ha'aretz that he will accept historic responsibility for the crimes of fascism and ask for forgiveness from the Jewish people during a visit he hopes to make to Jerusalem. The Alliance (Allianza Nazionale) is the successor to the neo-fascist party founded in Italy after World War II.

Speaking in an exclusive interview held at his office in Rome, Fini said: "As an Italian I have to accept responsibility, in the name of the Italians. This is something I must do. The Italians bear responsibility for what happened after 1938, after the racial laws were legislated. They bear a historic responsibility, a responsibility that is inscribed in history, a responsibility to issue declarations and ask for forgiveness."

Experts on fascism claim that Fini makes a distinction between the criminal period of fascism - the alliance with Hitler's Germany, the racial laws, the Salo Republic (the puppet regime set up in Northern Italy by Hitler under the dictator Benito Mussolini in 1943) - and the period of `good fascism' prior to the legislation of the racial laws in 1938. But Fini claims that he would have no problem in unreservedly condemning the fascist movement or ideology while on a visit to Israel.

Fini, who in the past called Mussolini "the greatest statesman of the 20th century," is now considered in Rome as an acceptable right-wing politician and a moderating influence in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's scandal prone coalition. Many see him as Italy's next prime minister.

While Israeli academics such as Shlomo Avineri and Ze'ev Sternhell are firmly opposed to any visit to Israel by Fini, the Foreign Ministry claims that there is no difference between Fini and other right-wing politicians such as Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Fini's confidants claim his visit to Israel will probably take place this autumn.