Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi drew
widespread criticism for defending Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini
during an event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The comments were "an electoral manoeuvre" to reach out to far-right voters, the head of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) Pier Luigi Bersani Sunday was quoted by the ANSA press agency as saying.
Berlusconi, who is leading a centre-right coalition in parliamentary polls in February, said Mussolini "in many ways did well."
But the 1938 racial laws barring Jews from universities and many professions were the dictator's worst fault, he said at a ceremony in Milan Sunday.
Mussolini came to power in 1922 and allied himself with Nazi Germany during World War II. That included taking part in Adolf Hitler's persecution against Europe's Jewish population.
He said it was possible that Italy was "frightened that German power might become a German victory, and preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than to oppose it," he said.
Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called that suggestion "not only superficial and inappropriate, but devoid of moral sense or historical basis."
"It is well-known that the persecution and racist laws against Jews originated well before the war and were implemented in full autonomy by the fascist regime," he was quoted as saying by the ASNA press agency.
Berlusconi dismissed the criticism as politicking by his opponents. He said there could be no ambiguity about his overall opinion of the dictator.
"My historical analyses have always been based on a condemnation of dictatorships," Berlusconi said later, insisting that he has always been a "friend of Israel."
If his coalition wins in February, Berlusconi he has said he wants to become economy minister, and has made no claim to his former office of prime minister in recent statements.
At Sunday's ceremony, outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti called for vigilance in light of new right-wing radical activity.
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