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One sentence, nine words - that's all it took for the Italian press to go wild over an interview Gianfranco Fini gave to Ha'aretz. "As an Italian I must accept responsibility, I must do so in the name of Italians," said Fini. "The Italians bear responsibility for what happened after the legislation of the race laws in 1938 - and they must apologize."

His words created a furor, demonstrating just how raw Italian nerves are about the country's fascist past. Fini, deputy prime minister and leader of the National Alliance that was set up in 1994 on the remnants of the neo-Nazi ISM, was speaking about his planned visit to Israel when, he said, he planned to acknowledge historic responsibility for the crimes of the Fascists and ask for the forgiveness of the Jewish people.

But the Italian media didn't wait for the visit - as far as they were concerned, the declaration of intent that appeared in Ha'aretz was already the apology. And they examined every word.

Maurizio Molinari of La Stampa said: "Fini broke the taboo that has paralyzed the national memory in Italy for the last 57 years. In 1996, French President Jacques Chirac accepted historic responsibility for crimes against the Jews. Fini's acceptance of historic responsibility is to the same extent an opportunity to clear our national conscience. Our Vichy was the Salo Republic, Hitler's puppet regime."

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein went further, saying: "Fini's language emphasizes what a large part of the academic world and the Italian left does not want to hear - Fascism was a regime of the masses and therefore the entire nation bears responsibility for it."

Thus, many regard Fini's apology as "a brave act," a "noble step," and even "a historic turning point." Many others - more apparently - refuse to deal with the question of historic, collective responsibility.

"Who do you think you are?" ask the fascist militants, who want Mussolini and his "legitimate heirs" rehabilitated. "Who do you think you are?" ask the veteran partisans, as well as elements on the left and representatives of the Jewish community, standing up for the anti-fascist underground that refuses to allow the heirs of the hangmen to apologize in the name of crimes against which the underground fought.

They have a point. Unlike Chirac, who grew up at Charles de Gaulle's anti-Vichy knee, Fini grew up at the knee of Giorgio Almirante, founder of the ISM, an active participant in the Salo republic, and an editor of an anti-Semitic journal.

In Fini's party and among his constituents there are those still motivated by nostalgia for the old days. Clearly, the leadership of the National Alliance must initiate a de-fascization program and conduct some historic soul-searching - something it has never done.

Fini will be asked about all of this in Israel, yet there is no comparison, as some of those opposed to the visit have made, between him and the Austrian extremist Joerg Haider.

Haider took a centrist liberal party and drove it to the extreme rightist edge, while Fini has taken the opposite route and taken his party to a dramatic ideological turnabout. Haider called SS veterans "decent people" while Fini "unreservedly" condemns Mussolini's ideology.

Haider uses anti-Semitic codes and is a vehement critic of Israel, while the enthusiastically pro-Israeli Fini finds caricatures of himself wearing a streimel in the press. Haider has turned out to be an unstable political clown, while Fini - opportunist or not - is considered consistent, and even the left regards him as an impressive politician.

From the reactions to the Ha'aretz interview with Fini, it appears that Italy in 2002 is still not ready to take collective historic responsibility for the crimes of fascism. In any case, as far as Italians are concerned and because of his past, Fini is not the right man to stand where Chirac did in 1996.

Nonetheless, his visit to Israel could accelerate the process of his and his party's disengagement from the past. Then, perhaps, Italy will allow him to play the role of national apologist.