By Irene Peroni
A US Jewish lobby this week gave Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi its annual award - only days after he said Mussolini was a benign dictator.
US Jews praise Mr Berlusconi - but Italian Jews are less enamoured
The remark sparked a wave of outrage among Italy's Jewish community.
But the New York-based Anti-Defamation League said Mr Berlusconi deserved its Distinguished Statesman Award for his help to fight a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe, his support for Israel and his commitment to the war on terror.
"Berlusconi has sided with the USA against Iraq while the other countries were keeping quiet," the lobby's director, Abraham Foxman, told Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.
"Few countries in Europe understand Israel's problems, and when anti-Semitism exploded again in Europe, he did not hesitate to brand it as unacceptable," Foxman added.
Some renowned Jewish intellectuals protested against the award.
In a letter to the New York Times, economists and Nobel laureates Franco Modigliani, Paul A. Samuelson and Robert L. Solow said that the award was "bad for Jews, for Italy, the United States and Israel".
"Mussolini was responsible for the deportation of almost 7,000 Jews, who died in Nazi camps," the letter said.
The controversy surrounding Mr Berlusconi's remarks about Mussolini focused on his claim that the dictator "did not murder anyone" and would at the most "send someone on holiday in internal exile".
He later explained that he was reacting to a parallel drawn by the interviewer between Mussolini and Saddam Hussein.
"As an Italian, I did not accept his comparison of my country to another dictator and dictatorship - that of Saddam Hussein - which caused millions of deaths," he explained.
The prime minister later paid a visit to the head of Italy's Jewish communities, Amos Luzzatto, to apologise, but some members were still asking for a proper and formal retraction.
Despite the premier's gaffe on Mussolini, many Italian pundits believe that the country has never been as pro-Israeli as under Mr Berlusconi's leadership.
He has often said that he would like Israel to join the European Union, and during last year's trip to Israel, he snubbed Yasir Arafat by choosing not to meet him.
Finally, the Palestinian militant group Hamas has been added to an EU list of international terror organisations during Italy's six-month tenure of the chairmanship of the EU Council of Ministers.
"You may or may not agree with the [Italian] centre-right government's foreign policy. But the fact remains, that it is characterised by a marked pro-Israeli, in addition to pro-USA, stance," a recent commentary in daily newspaper Corriere della Sera said.
Asked about the gaffe on Mussolini, Abraham Foxman said: "[Berlusconi] is a friend. He is a good friend. but he's a flawed friend".
Mr Modigliani, one of the intellectuals who signed the letter to the New York Times protesting against the award to Mr Berlusconi, died this week at the age of 85.