As far-right Austrian party attempts to shed Nazi past, a dilemma for Israel
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AnalysisMK: It's 'like boycotting Christians over the Inquisition'

As far-right Austrian party attempts to shed Nazi past, a dilemma for Israel

Jerusalem conflicted over whether to side with Diaspora Jewish leaders, who are shunning FPOe, or engage in realpolitik to advance Israel's interests

Raphael Ahren

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

Newly sworn-in Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left, and new Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPOe’s chairman, talk during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Austrian government in Vienna on December 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
Newly sworn-in Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left, and new Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPOe’s chairman, talk during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Austrian government in Vienna on December 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The Foreign Ministry on Monday issued a carefully worded statement about Israel’s engagement with the new Austrian coalition government, in which the far-right Freedom Party is a senior partner.

The government in Jerusalem will maintain “direct contact” with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz but will carry out “a professional review regarding the manner in which Israel will conduct itself vis-à-vis the new government,” Monday’s Foreign Ministry statement said.

“For the time being, Israel will maintain contact with the professional level of the government ministries in which Freedom Party ministers serve. The State of Israel stresses its commitment to combat anti-Semitism and preserve the memory of the Holocaust.”

But the exact nature of Jerusalem’s policy vis-a-vis the party, known by its German acronym FPOe, remains a mystery.

The FPOe is notorious for being the political home of neo-Nazis and xenophobes but has in recent years made efforts to distance itself from such views. It has also adopted strong pro-Israel positions.

In the eyes of Israeli diplomats, the question of whether Israel boycotts or cooperates with the far-right party goes to very heart of what it means to be a Jewish state in an era of an ascending populist right.

On the one hand, Israel wants to stand strong against anti-Semitism and back Austria’s Jews, who object to any ties with the FPOe — not only because of its dubious past but also due to alleged racist and anti-Semitic undertones in this year’s election campaign.

On the other hand, Austria is an important country in Europe and Israel wants to maintain the good relationship it has established with the former foreign minister and new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.

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

The FPOe is the first far-right slate to enter a European government, but populist parties continue to gain traction all over the Continent and Jerusalem must decide whether it wants to boycott them on ideological grounds or adopt a realpolitik approach that seeks to partner with whoever promises to support Israel.

A change of heart?

Foreign Ministry officials told The Times of Israel that the ban includes, at least for now, Austria’s new foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, who was appointed by the FPOe but is not formally a member of the party.

Kneissl, who spent many years in the Middle East and speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, has made headlines in Israel for having described early Zionism in one of her books as a “blood-and-soil ideology based on German nationalism.”

Karin Kneissl (Thomas Raggam / Wikipedia)

Kneissl, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the notion of borders in the Middle East, has in recent years as a lecturer and public speaker adopted a hardline position on Islamism and appeared to embrace Israel’s narrative that it serves as an island of stability in an cruel, tumultuous region.

The new coalition government of which she is a senior member certainly is trying hard to endear itself to Israeli and Jewish observers.

The “government program” Kurz’s party and the FPOe published after finalizing coalition negotiations includes an explicit “commitment to Israel as a Jewish state with the goal of a two-state solution that will allow an Israel in permanently secure borders and a viable Palestinian state.”

No previous Austrian government has recognized Israel as a Jewish state.

The document (German) also calls for a “peaceful solution in the Middle East, with special consideration for Israel’s security interests.”

The text rejects “political Islam,” arguing that it can “lead to radicalization, anti-Semitism, violence and terrorism.” It also refers to Nazism as the “one of the greatest tragedies in world history” and says Austria recognizes “complicity and responsibility” for it. The new coalition further vows to commemorate those who underwent “terrible suffering and misery” as a result of Austria’s Anschluss in 1938 to Nazi Germany and to take a clear stance against anti-Semitism.

In June, the FPOe’s chairman, new Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, declared his intention to move the Austrian embassy to Jerusalem (though he has since indicated that Vienna will not break European consensus on the matter) and implied that Israel has the right to expand West Bank settlements as it sees fit.

The letter Austrian far-right leader Hans-Christian Strache sent to PM Netanyahu in June of 2017

It is because of such positions that some on the Israel right are calling on the government to end its boycott of the party. Likud MK Yehudah Glick, who met with Strache earlier this year, said Tuesday the two discussed in recent days how to achieve a possible normalization between Israel and the former neo-Nazi party.

Strache asked the Israeli government to submit a lists of demands, Glick told Army Radio, indicating that the far-right leader would be happy to accommodate any wishes Jerusalem might have in order to establish a working relationship.

Likud MK Yehudah Glick. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Boycotting them because of their past is like boycotting Christians because of the Inquisition,” Glick argued.

The Jewish community — in Austria, Europe and even the United States — is not impressed by the FPOe’s ostensible change of heart, warning Israel against legitimizing a party they still consider highly problematic.

“The reason is that many representatives of the FPOe, including Mr. Strache, have repeatedly, also including the election 2017, used anti-Semitic codes, made extremely right-wing statements and have promoted hatred and racism,” the head of the Austrian Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, wrote this week in a letter to the Foreign Ministry.

The European Jewish Congress, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the World Jewish Congress have issued similar statements.

A demonstrator holds a poster reading ‘Nazis out of the parliament’ during a demonstration ahead of the swearing-in ceremony of the new Austrian government led by a conservative and a far-right party in Vienna, on December 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

A ‘kosher stamp’ for neo-Nazis?

Israel’s decision to engage only with professionals working in ministries headed by FPOe politicians — which amounts to a boycott of the party — is a nod to the Jewish community’s concerns.

However, the Foreign Ministry’s working group, headed by director-general Yuval Rotem, will review this policy and might adjust it in the future. In determining the level of Jerusalem’s future engagement with Vienna, the diplomats will have to consider many factors.

For one, the Jewish community’s response will be telling. If local Jews withdraw or weaken their opposition to cooperation with FPOe ministers, Israel will likely follow suit.

Jerusalem will also keep a close eye on how the new Austrian government is treated by other capitals. When the FPOe entered the government in 1999, many European countries downgraded their contacts with Vienna.

Given that Europe has changed, with populist parties gaining strength everywhere, Israeli diplomats have been discussing for weeks now how to treat the new Austrian government. Some argue vehemently that the Jewish state has to put moral considerations over any other concern and must not be seen as legitimizing a party said to have anti-Semitic and racist affinities.

This school of thought believes that the world views Israel as a benchmark regarding anti-Semitism, and that the Freedom Party is actively wooing Jerusalem because it knows a “kosher stamp” from the Jewish state would go a long way in getting rid of its problematic reputation. Israel should thus resist the temptation of the party’s staunchly pro-Israel positions and continue to shun it, they insist.

Anti-fascist protesters demonstrate outside the Austrian parliament against the far-right Freedom Party on November 9, 2017, in Vienna. (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

Others argue that the government owes its citizens to do whatever serves Israeli interests, even if that entails joining forces with parties espousing positions Diaspora Jewry dislikes. A good relationship with Vienna can help Israel in the European Union, where every voice can make a difference, proponents of establishing ties with the FPOe stress.

In the end, it is up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who is also foreign minister —  to determine the extent to which Israel will engage with the new Austrian government.

With his controversial visit to Budapest in July, during which he embraced Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom local Jews accused of employing anti-Semitic stereotypes, Netanyahu has demonstrated that he does not mind putting strong ties with political leaders ahead of the wishes of Diaspora Jews. But for today, when it comes to Austria’s FPOe, Israel is not biting.

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