ROME, Oct. 17 (JTA) — The door is opening for the leader of an Italian party with fascist roots to visit Israel.
In an interview published Monday, Israel’s new ambassador to Italy, Ehud Gol, implied that Israeli officials believe Gianfranco Fini, deputy prime minister in Italy’s center-right government, has shaken off his neo-fascist roots and become a mainstream politician.
“We can see, from various signs, that he has retreated from the positions of his political past,” Gol told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Fini, the leader of the National Alliance Party, has sought to visit Israel since the mid-1990s, when he began converting the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, into a mainstream right-wing force.
As part of this transformation, he has openly courted Jewish interests.
He condemned anti-Semitism and even visited Auschwitz to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.
In 1997, he condemned the anti-Semitic laws introduced in 1938 by the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. At that time, he also condemned the so-called Salo Republic, a diehard fascist-run enclave set up by Mussolini in Nazi-occupied northern Italy after the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943.
Earlier this year, he laid a wreath during his first visit to San Saba in Trieste, the only Nazi death camp located in Italy.
A visit by Fini to the Jewish state and meetings with Israeli officials would be an important step in legitimizing this transition.
For years, Italian Jewish leaders raised sharp objections to any such visit and expressed skepticism over the political evolution of Fini’s party.
Amos Luzzatto, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, has been particularly vocal in objecting to a visit by Fini to Israel unless Fini explicitly recognizes the moral and political responsibility of Italian fascism in the Holocaust.
However, Italian Jews recently have become split on the issue.
Several figures, including Cobi Benatoff, the former head of the Milan Jewish community who is now president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, have publicly expressed confidence in Fini.
Last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres also appeared to approve a visit by Fini to Israel.
Asked by a reporter if Fini could visit, Peres responded, “Why not? It’s not like before, and we will judge him for his official positions.”
In his interview — his first since arriving to take up his new post in Italy — Gol seconded this opinion.
“I am not so sure” that a visit “will take place tomorrow, but Peres did indeed express Israel’s point of view,” he said.