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Amid bilateral tension, Austrian chancellor aiming to visit Israel next month

Israel has been boycotting far-right members of Sebastian Kurz’s government; no date confirmed yet

Austria's newly elected leader Sebastian Kurz, head of the Austrian Peoples Party, OVP, during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, October 24, 2017. (AFP Phoro/APA/Georg Hochmuth)
Austria's newly elected leader Sebastian Kurz, head of the Austrian Peoples Party, OVP, during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, October 24, 2017. (AFP Phoro/APA/Georg Hochmuth)

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is planning a visit to Israel next month, embassy officials said Wednesday, amid tensions between Jerusalem and Vienna over the inclusion of a far-right party in the Austrian government.

In December, Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) entered a coalition government with Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party (FPOe), which has a neo-Nazi past and has been accused of xenophobic views.

Austria’s embassy in Israel told The Times of Israel officials were working on a date but had not yet confirmed a schedule.

Israel has been boycotting officials affiliated with the FPOe. However, a Foreign Ministry working group, headed by Director General Yuval Rotem, was created to review this policy.

Last month Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss attended a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting to review the boycott.

Austria’s Jewish leaders have also shunned the far-right party.

Strache has said he hoped the ban on contacts would be overturned, although he said he “fully respects” Jerusalem’s decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with Austria’s then-foreign minister Sebastian Kurz in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Kurz has visited Israel before when he was Austria’s foreign minister, meeting Prime Minister Benjamin in Jerusalem in 2016.

He more recently met with Netanyahu in February on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

In March Netanyahu praised Kurz for a speech in which he acknowledged Vienna’s complicity in the Holocaust and announced the creation of memorial to Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis.

Founded by former Nazis, the Freedom Party emerged as Europe’s strongest far-right force in the late 1990s.

In 2000, the OeVP — now Kurz’s party — picked the FPOe as its junior coalition partner.

At that time, the FPOe was headed by Jorg Haider, who praised Hitler’s “orderly employment policies.” He called SS veterans “decent people” and described concentration camps as “punishment camps.”

Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna in protest and its then-prime minister Ehud Barak called Haider “the representative of evil.”

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache is seen at a press conference after the first meeting of Austria’s new cabinet on December 19, 2017 in Vienna, Austria. (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

Austria’s 14 European Union partners at the time imposed bilateral diplomatic sanctions.

Under pressure, Haider stepped down as FPOe leader on May 1, 2000.

The FPOe has since softened its image and won 26 percent of the vote in the October 1 Austrian election.

Strache, 48, has sought to soften the party’s image and has visited Israel several times, the last time in April 2016, when he met members of Netanyahu’s Likud.

Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.

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