ROME, Nov. 12 (JTA) — An official visit to Israel later this month caps nearly a decade of effort by Italy´s deputy prime minister to shed the jackboot image of his party´s neo-fascist roots and fully emerge as a mainstream rightist leader. Gianfrano Fini, head of the right-wing National Alliance party, is to visit Israel Nov. 23-26, less than a week after a scheduled visit to Italy by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Pier Fernando Casini, president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, is in Israel this week. Italy currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is regarded as one of Israel´s best friends in the union. The Israeli Embassy in Rome said Fini will meet with Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, President Moshe Katsav, Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres and others. He also will lay a wreath at Yad Vashem. Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, will accompany him. The trip will represent the culmination of a process that began in 1994 when Fini, then the leader of a fringe neo-fascist group called the Italian Social Movement began pressing his party to move into the conservative mainstream. The movement had been founded after World War II by loyalists of the defeated fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Fini himself once had described Mussolini as "the greatest statesman of the 20th century." At a convention in January 1995, Fini formally proclaimed the Italian Social Movement´s transformation into the National Alliance. The convention condemned "every form of totalitarianism, racism, intolerance and anti-Semitism" and called for the building of an "Italy that is based on liberty and democratic values." It also recognized "the crucial historic role played by the anti-fascist movement in restoring democracy to Italy." Jews, including Luzzatto, were slow to accept this change of direction and remained skeptical as Fini took step after step to demonstrate his ideological turnaround. Among other things, he paid homage at Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites, and last year he publicly apologized to the Jewish people for Italy´s persecution of Jews under Mussolini, which began with anti-Semitic racial laws in 1938. Fini also has thrown his support firmly behind Israel. Last week, for example, he backed the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. He also dismissed as "crazy" a recent E.U. poll showing that more Europeans consider Israel a threat to world peace than any other country. The Israeli Embassy spokesman played down the historic significance of Fini´s trip, saying that Fini would be visiting as Italy´s deputy prime minister, not as the head of a political party. Israeli officials indicated two years ago that Jerusalem was willing to set aside longstanding objections and allow Fini to visit the Jewish state. At the time, however, Italian Jewish leaders cautioned against a trip. The fact that Luzzatto will travel with Fini indicates that Italian Jews have accepted Fini´s sincerity. Still, Jewish community spokesman Riccardo Pacifici cautioned, "it will be important to look out that the visit does not get manipulated, either by the government or by the left-wing opposition." The announcement of Fini´s trip came as a public opinion survey indicated that more than half of Italians feel little "sympathy" for Israel and 70 percent consider Israeli policy mistaken. The poll also showed that the vast majority of Italians believe in Israel´s right to exist. The poll, carried out on behalf of the Corriere della Sera newspaper and published Monday, indicated that one-third or less of the population knows the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also showed that about 20 percent of Italians harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. "Disinformation about the reality of events and the consequent greater readiness to accept the most simplistic interpretation also appear to depend on anti-Jewish sentiment and, in turn, contribute to shape it and reinforce it," wrote sociologist Renato Mannheimer, who oversaw the survey.
Italian rightist to visit Israel