Amid row over far-right Freedom Party, Austrian chancellor to visit Israel

Sebastian Kurz’s deputy, Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, won’t join next month’s trip; his party is boycotted by Israeli government over its Nazi past

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is set to travel to Israel in June in what will be his first visit to the Jewish state since his People’s Party entered a coalition agreement with the far-right Freedom Party.

Kurz announced the trip on his Twitter account Sunday morning.

Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the controversial faction, will not join the Austrian delegation.

Official Israel currently boycotts the Freedom Party, known by its German acronym FPOe, due to its neo-Nazi past and xenophobic positions, though Jerusalem has signaled readiness to reassess this policy.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, right, of the Austrian People’s Party and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party give a news conference in Vienna after their first Cabinet meeting, December 19, 2017. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

Some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party advocate normalizing ties with Strache’s party, a move Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the local Jewish community adamantly oppose.

In Israel, Kurz, who will be accompanied by Austria’s Science and Education Minister Heinz Fassmann, will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials. He will also visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and meet with Austrian survivors of the Holocaust, he announced in a series of tweets early Sunday morning.

Netanyahu and Kurz, who has visited Israel twice in his previous position as foreign minister, last met in mid-February at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

“Austria has a special historical responsibility never to forget the horrible crimes of the Holocaust and is committed to the security of Israel and its citizens,” Kurz wrote. “We actively support Jewish life in our country and fight against any form of anti-Semitism. Only if Jews can live unrestrictedly in peace, freedom and security, ‘never forget’ can also turn into ‘never again.’”

Also on Sunday, Kurz and Strache attended an event to mark the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp.

Joined by President Alexander Van der Bellen, they laid a wreath at Vienna’s Memorial against War and Fascism, “in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust, one of the darkest chapters in Austria‘s history.”

“It is our responsibility and profound determination to fight against all forms of antisemitism and to ensure that a ‘never forget’ becomes a ‘never again,’ government spokesperson Peter Launsky said. “Especially during the memorial year 2018 it is important to promote an active commemorative culture.”

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