Analysis: Fini's Non-apology Disappointing

Disappointing. No apology in the name of the fascist camp, not even in the name of the Italians. Important statements on the horrors of the Holocaust, on the need to prevent it from happening again. Important condemnations of "shameful chapters in our nation's history," decrying "the disgrace of the 1938 race laws": statements that have already been uttered by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini himself. Similar declarations have frequently been uttered by foreign leaders who visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, by leaders who had no ties to criminal regimes.

But these are not the statements one expects from a leader whose origin lies in Italian fascism. Not from someone who grew up on the knees of Giorgio Almirante, the founder of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), from someone who until nine years ago continued to see the dictator Benito Mussolini as the greatest statesman of the 20th century, from someone who went the distance to be accepted by the Jewish state and win from it an ultimate and long-awaited purification.

In September 2002, Fini, the leader of Italy's National Alliance party, said in an interview with Haaretz that he intended to come to Israel and ask the forgiveness of the Jewish people: "As an Italian, I have to accept responsibility, in the name of the Italians." He added: "The Italians bear responsibility for what happened after 1938, after the race laws were legislated. They bear a historic responsibility... [to] ask for forgiveness." The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem said this week that these comments were among the decisive factors that paved the way for Fini's official visit.

In Italy, the comments led to a wave of reactions, analyses and editorials that demonstrated the extent to which the fascist past touches raw nerves. Analyst Maurizio Molinari, for instance, wrote in the Italian newspaper La Stampa that Fini's comments "break a taboo that paralyzed the 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 the Salo Republic, Hitler's puppet regime."

Many therefore saw in Fini's intentions of apology a "brave act," a "noble step," and even "a historic turning point." 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.

Fini chose the easy path Monday: he didn't apologize on behalf of any one group.

"It's easier for Fini to identify with Israel, with the terror-stricken nation, than to come to terms with the problematic past," one of the Italian journalists accompanying Fini explained Monday night.

A few hours after the visit to Yad Vashem, Fini called a news conference for Italian journalists. In response to a question, Fini agreed to characterize fascism as "absolute evil" - an imporant statement in itself. But what happened to the promised apology, he was asked Monday night in an interview with Haaretz. "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," Fini said. "I 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 a Nazi criminal that was distributed last week by a member of your party.

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

Does this mean we shouldn't link your lack of apology to a secret agreement with party extremists?

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

Fini's use of Luzzatto as an "alibi" is disturbing. Fini did not clarify whether the Italian people are ready for a collective apology for the crimes of fascism, because he simply chose not to express such an apology. He did clarify one thing: He isn't a 1995-model Chirac.

Gianfranco Fini, who will be leaving Israel tomorrow morning, still has one short day left to grab hold of the history that seems until now to have evaded him.