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Argentina's Milei embarks on diplomatic trip to Israel, Italy

FILE PHOTO: Argentina's President Milei's waves to crowd after swearing-in ceremony in Buenos Aires

By Walter Bianchi

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina's President Javier Milei set off on an overseas tour on Monday that will see him visit Israel, locked in a conflict in Gaza, and then fly to Italy where he will meet the pope, whom he once called the devil's representative on earth.

The right-wing libertarian leader, an economist and former sharp-tongued pundit who took office in December, will also meet Italian conservative Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, along with prominent business and religious leaders during his trip.

Prior to his surprise election win last year, the combative Milei frequently attacked Pope Francis, a fellow Argentine, denouncing him as a socialist, though he has since looked to mend bridges and invited the pontiff to visit Argentina.

Milei, who has said he may convert to Judaism, is set to meet with rabbis in Israel and visit prominent Jewish sites in Jerusalem as well as commemorate the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, in a series of events planned through Thursday.

He is scheduled to hold talks on Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who Milei has strongly backed in his war on the Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip.

In Italy, Milei will attend the Vatican canonization of Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, an Argentine religious sister who has been on the path to sainthood since 2010.

The president's highly-anticipated meeting with the pope is set for Feb. 12. The following day he is set to meet Meloni.

Milei's has embarked on the trip as he works to push a sweeping reform bill through Congress that would pave the way for the privatization of government-owned entities and cut generous state subsidies, among other economic and political goals.

(Reporting by Walter Bianchi; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Paul Simao)