Fini's Way

There is probably no journalist who hasn't thought at one time or another about the manner and the significance of his coverage of public events. I have never been overly preoccupied with this question. Nevertheless, I was enveloped by an undefined feeling that I have never experienced before, when I recently heard that Gianfranco Fini had been appointed Italy's new foreign minister.

In other times, the combination of the name "Fini" with the title "foreign minister" would have caused indignation and fury, would have brought people out into the streets, would have led to a recall of Italian ambassadors from all over the world, would even perhaps have led to a severance of diplomatic ties. But none of these things has happened. The press in Europe, for the most part, devoted short news items in its inside pages to the appointment. Even in Israel the indifferent media shrugged their shoulders.

Fini, who in 1987 inherited the leadership of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, who in 1992 marched in front of tens of thousands of people, who with a raised-arm salute marked the historic march of Benito Mussolini on Rome, and who in 1994 still considered Il Duce the "most important personality of the 20th century" - that same Fini is now in charge of Italian diplomacy, and the sky isn't falling. On the contrary. It seems that everyone - both in Europe and in Israel - is reacting positively. Is it really possible that I also made a small contribution to this?

I met Fini for the first time in the summer of 2002. As someone who kept track of the representatives of the extreme right, the vestiges of Nazism and fascism in Europe, with great interest, I had interviewed Jorg Haider, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Rolf Schlierer (the head of the extreme-right Republikaner Party in Germany) and Gerhard Frei (his colleague-rival, the head of the German People's Party).

Fini was supposed to be the next in line. We met at Palazzo Chigi, the office of the Italian prime minister; Fini was his deputy at the time. He was very tense. He was in the midst of an impressive ideological transformation, which many found to be suspicious.

As I later discovered, he had set his sights on this interview. He hoped to be able to convince the readers of the sincerity of his moves. Of the fact that these moves were irreversible. He knew that this would enable him to come on a historic visit to Israel. And he delivered the goods: He shook himself free of Mussolini, condemned fascism and anti-Semitism, expressed enthusiastic support for Israel, and primarily, he declared that if he was permitted to come to Jerusalem, he would accept there the responsibility for the crimes of fascism and would ask forgiveness of the Jewish people.

The Italian press was very excited. It considered his words "a historic turning point," "the breaking of the taboo that had paralyzed national memory in Italy." It compared his declarations to French President Jacques Chirac's acceptance of responsibility for the crimes of the Vichy regime. The press, like Fini, understood that the way to Jerusalem had been paved.

And, in fact, a year later Fini came on an official visit to Israel. At Yad Vashem he once again condemned the horrors of the Holocaust and the "disgrace of the 1938 racial laws." The promised apology was not heard there. Clearly stated historical responsibility was not taken. However, at a press conference that he held later, and which was reserved for some reason for the Italian media alone, Fini condemned the Salo Republic - the puppet government established by Hitler in 1943, headed by Mussolini - and defined it as "one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of our nation."

In reply to a question, he even agreed to call fascism "absolute evil." The history that was not made at Yad Vashem was made after all, at a press conference in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The Italian media were beside themselves again. They spoke of a "victory for Italian democracy" and of "a final reconciliation between Fini and the Jewish people." Alessandra Mussolini (the granddaughter), slammed the door in Fini's face and left his party in anger. Fini's path - this time to the ministry of foreign affairs in Rome - had been paved.

A few days after his appointment, we spoke on the phone. Look, said the new foreign minister, laughing heartily: When we first met, I was still considered by some as the enemy of the Jewish people. Two years later, they are already calling me Israel's best friend in Europe.

Fini knows that his chances of serving as the prime minister of Italy are greater today than ever before. His way to the Palazzo Chigi looks like clear sailing.