Israel keeps its distance from right-wing Italy

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THE neo-Fascists and other right-wingers in Italy's corridors of power are not about to make the government expel immigrants, invade Dalmatia or abolish democracy. But to an ever-growing number of foreign leaders what they say is quite alarming enough.

The latest episode is a chill in relations with Israel, despite the fact that the Foreign Minister, Antonio Martino, has declared that this is the most pro-Israeli Italian government for decades.

The Israeli government did not send the customary congratulations to the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, when he and his government took office and the visit of an Israeli cultural delegation has been called off. The reason, the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin, said in a radio interview at the weekend, was the presence of neo-Fascist ministers in the government.

But, he went on, 'the principal problem at the moment is the election of the president of the Chamber of Deputies. She is a young woman who in the past has made anti-Semitic statements, unlike the neo-Fascist ministers who have never done so.'

The young woman in question is Irene Pivetti, 31, a truculent and highly outspoken member of the Northern League, who caused outcries recently by claiming that Fascism did 'many good things' for women and that feminism had been a disaster and a failure. But what probably alarmed Mr Beilin most was an article she wrote in the right-wing l'Indipendente some 18 months ago after a gang of 'Naziskin' thugs had daubed Stars of David on the windows of shops run by Jews in Milan.

She condemned the reactions as 'witchhunt hysteria' and a 'pretext to give vent to ridiculous laments about resurgent anti-Semitism and to justify the susceptibilities of bands of young Jews with itchy fists'. She said the cause of persecution against Jews was always their ability to maintain their identity and 'expand their considerable economic intellectual and political influence'.

A militant, intransigent Catholic (she recently ordered Masses to be said in the Chamber chapel before every session - something not even the Christian Democrats had done - but failed to make similar provision for other faiths), she insists she is not anti-Semitic and hired a Jewish secretary.

Mr Beilin's remarks may not necessarily set the tone for Israeli's future relations with Italy. Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, said yesterday that he would take no decision on this until after a meeting with Mr Martino in Luxembourg next Monday. 'Israeli will not jump to conclusions,' he said.

At the same time, Jacques Delors, President of the EC Commission, was speaking of 'rage in my heart' at favourable remarks about fascism by Gianfranco Fini, head of the National Alliance.