America's `Italian connection' -- the ties are frayed

DOMESTIC Italian developments in the wake of the Achille Lauro hijacking this past October indicate that damage to Italian-American relations will not be easily repaired by President Reagan's conciliatory ``Dear Bettino'' letter -- or by Mr. Craxi's return to power after a brief resignation. Ironically, the outcome of the ship hijacking has forced Rome into the unexpected position of cooling its longtime zealous support for US objectives. Moreover, the course of internal Italian politics has been altered by the hijacking, as well as the US response to that hijacking.

To take up the latter point first: The reason for Prime Minister Craxi's resignation went beyond Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini's pullout from the Cabinet after Rome released terrorist leader Abul Abbas. Since the Italian Republican Party commanded only 29 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, its defection would still have left Craxi's coalition with a narrow majority. What needs to be clearly understood is that the real reason Socialist Craxi was reluctant to hold a confidence vote on the Abbas issue

was the probability of Communist support for the Craxi government.

Long accustomed to Socialist Party subservience, the Italian Communist Party resented Craxi's success in governing without it and in adopting bold actions to bolster the Italian economy.

By curbing Communist influence, Craxi aims at eventually ending the Italian anomaly when compared with other Western European nations, which have powerful Socialist parties and weak Communist organizations. If Craxi accomplishes this goal, he will have transformed the Italian Socialist Party into a credible challenger of the Christian Democrats.

Even though they do not hold the premiership, the Christian Democrats did so for 40 years and still dominate the Italian political system.

As might be expected, Craxi's success threatens not only the Communists, but the Christian Democrats, and they adopted an ambiguous stance during the hijacking. On the one hand, they wished to bring down Craxi, but they could not take decisive action because Christian Democratic Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti conducted the entire operation which ruptured friendly relations with the Americans, and a Christian Democratic justice minister decided that the evidence provided by the United States did not w arrant holding Abbas.

For now at least, there is a modicum of outward calm in Rome despite all this political jockeying between Socialists, Communists, Republicans, and Christian Democrats. Craxi is back in office. And public opinion polls indicate that while Italians may quarrel with the release of terrorist Abul Abbas, they agree with Craxi's policy of maintaining equidistance between the Israelis and the Arabs in the Middle East. It is hoped the climate of national unity that Mr. Craxi had been building before the Achille

Lauro hijacking -- and the flap with the Americans over the release of Abbas -- will once again be put back together in Italy over time.

American heavy-handedness in the Lauro case, as revealed by Craxi, will undoubtedly increase his popularity. But in the past Craxi and his aides have been strongly pro-American. The Italian Communists have long charged Italian subservience to American interests, and vocal leaders of Craxi's own party have echoed these charges.

Reagan may thus have forced Craxi to modify his pro-Americanism to prevent the Communists from seizing upon the issue as the best means to reverse their party's slide. What this suggests is that American foreign policymakers should consider political conditions in other nations before taking dramatic steps which may have unanticipated negative repercussions.

Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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