New Austrian FM denies having compared Zionism with Nazism
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New Austrian FM denies having compared Zionism with Nazism

Boycotted by Jerusalem due to her affiliation with the far right, Karin Kneissl says her controversial quote was taken out of context, affirms Israel's status as Jewish state

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

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl (George Schneider)
Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl (George Schneider)

Zionism cannot be equated with Nazism, Austria’s new foreign minister said, rejecting accusations that she had made such a comparison in the past.

In an in-depth interview with The Times of Israel, Karin Kneissl defended the far-right Freedom Party, saying neither its leader Heinz-Christian Strache nor its other members have anti-Semitic inclinations.

Kneissl, who was appointed by the Freedom Party but is not formally a member, also reaffirmed her government’s commitment to Israel’s security, and even appeared to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

At the same time, Kneissl, who spent many years in the Middle East and speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic, said the new government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz rejects the US administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. She also criticized Israeli settlement construction and called for “affirmative steps” to resume peace negotiations that must lead to the implementation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“To insinuate any comparison between Nazism and Zionism is utter nonsense. I have never made any such comparison,” Kneissl told The Times of Israel.

“What I pointed out is the historical fact that Theodor Herzl was certainly inspired by the nationalist aspirations that swept through many European countries during the 19th century. You always have to see things in the historical context.”

When she was appointed in December, the 52-year-old Vienna native made headlines in Israel for having described early Zionism in one of her books as a “blood-and-soil ideology based on German nationalism.”

The quote, from her 2014 book “My Middle East,” led some observers to believe that she linked Zionism with Nazism.

“Some journalists only pointed out one line of the book without explaining the content,” she told The Times of Israel. “What’s important today is that myself and the new Austrian government are and remain committed to Israel as a Jewish state and to a two-state-solution, where Israel and Palestine live side by side, in peace and prosperity.”

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

Given her (albeit informal) affiliation with the Freedom Party, known by its German acronym FPOe, Israeli government officials are currently not engaging with Kneissl, though she said that several senior officials in Jerusalem have congratulated her on becoming foreign minister last month.

In December, Israel announced it would limit its contacts with ministries run by the FPOe and deal only with civil servants. This ban includes Kneissl, at least for now, Foreign Ministry officials told The Times of Israel at the time.

“We will see what’s going to happen in the following month but I’m confident that we will find a mutually respectful way of interaction with the Israeli government in the future,” she said.

Austria’s Jewish community refuses to have any contact with FPOe politicians, and Jewish leaders from across the world have warned Jerusalem against cooperation with the party, alleging that its members still espouse anti-Semitic and racist positions.

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.

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)

“The Austrian government has a clear position towards Israel in its coalition program. So therefore I do not see the problem,” Kneissl said.

“Also, FPOe leader and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has repeatedly emphasized that there is no space for anti-Semitism in his party. As far as I got to know him and other members of the party, I can tell that no one of them is anti-Semitic nor tolerates it.”

Any future agreement on the implementation of a two-state solution is inconceivable without full mutual recognition

Kneissl, who wrote her doctoral thesis in international law about the concept of borders in the Middle East, pointed out that the coalition agreement between the FPOe and Kurz’s People’s Party 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.”

“Any future agreement on the implementation of a two-state solution is inconceivable without full mutual recognition,” she said.

On the other hand, she insisted that settlement activities “threaten to further undermine prospects for a viable two-state solution, which remains the only realistic way to provide a perspective of peace and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.” Therefore, “affirmative steps are badly needed to create a political climate conducive to resuming meaningful and credible negotiations.

Below is the full transcript of the interview:

The Times of Israel: What is your position on the status of Jerusalem? Do you agree with the EU position that Jerusalem should be the capital of two states, Israel and Palestine, and that no change should be made to the status quo before a final-status peace deal?

Karin Kneissl: European member states share the international consensus on Jerusalem embodied in UN Security Council Resolution 478. The “Question of Jerusalem” is one of the key final status issues that Israel and the PLO have agreed to be solved in bilateral negotiations. The result of such negotiations should fulfill the aspirations of both parties by finding a way to agree on the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

What is your position on the West Bank settlements? Do you share the widespread notion that they are illegal under international law and are a central obstacle on the way to peace?

Here again, EU member states’ and the international community’s positions are well known. Settlement activities threaten to further undermine prospects for a viable two-state solution, which remains the only realistic way to provide a perspective of peace and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians. Affirmative steps are badly needed to create a political climate conducive to resuming meaningful and credible negotiations.

An illustrative photo of the construction of new houses in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, on September 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Do you tend to agree or disagree with the assertion, often made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, that the main obstacle to peace is the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to recognize a Jewish state in any borders? What do you think of Netanyahu’s insistence that Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is a prerequisite for any future peace deal?

Any future agreement on the implementation of a two-state solution is inconceivable without full mutual recognition. The Middle East Quartet has always been clear in its demand that all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Roadmap.

The new Austrian government has included a statement in its program for the coming five years that stresses Austria’s commitment to Israel as a Jewish state while focusing on a two-state solution that allows Israel to live within permanently secure borders and a viable Palestinian state.

Netanyahu in recent years advocates in favor of what is called the “outside-in approach.” Turning the Arab Peace Initiative on its head, he defies common wisdom that says the Arab world will recognize Israel after a Palestinian peace deal is reached. Rather, he believes that a wider Israeli-Arab rapprochement in light of Iran being a joint threat will soften Palestinian positions, enabling a peace deal with Ramallah only after the Arab states reconcile with Israel. What do you think about this approach?

I doubt whether the real question is one of “sequencing.” The real issues are commitment to finding a sustainable solution and trust: acceptance that the other’s aspirations are legitimate and trust that whatever is agreed upon will be implemented.

The Arab world can contribute in a significant way and has declared its readiness to do so in the Arab Peace Initiative.

What’s your stance on the Iran nuclear deal?

We understand the special security needs of Israel and take them very seriously. Israel’s security needs are specifically referred to in the new government’s program.

The [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] with Iran proves that conflicts are best solved by dialogue and persistent negotiations. There is no credible alternative to keep Iran off the nuclear track. Strict implementation is key — not built on trust, but on control mechanisms, such as the “snap back” mechanism in case of breach of the agreement.

We are convinced that the agreement will bring more security for the countries in the region, including Israel. The IAEA has just recently again certified Iran’s full implementation of its JCPOA obligations in the latest report.

A member of the Syrian government forces stands in a severely damaged street in Aleppo’s newly captured Al-Kalasseh neighborhood in the eastern part of the war torn city on December 13, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN)

Israel has in recent weeks said it will not tolerate any Iranian military presence in Syria, and vowed to act, even militarily, to prevent Iran from entrenching itself in the country. Do you view this position as justified in light of Iran’s continuing threats against Israel?

The civil war in Syria is a humanitarian and political tragedy and a particular challenge to international diplomacy and peacemaking. The international community agrees on the need of a political process based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which defines the way to a new and democratic Syria, capable of caring for all members of its ethnic, religious and confessional communities.

Regional parties are called upon to advance the peace process, confidence building measures and steps towards a ceasefire. It is definitely unacceptable to use Syrian territory to threaten neighboring countries or to wage a proxy war at the expense of the desperate Syrian civilian population after nearly seven years of civil war.

How do you respond to the Austrian and European Jewish leaders who call for a boycott of ministers from the FPOe? They cite the party’s past affinity with Nazism, arguing that it hasn’t done enough to distance itself from these positions.

The Austrian government has a clear position towards Israel in its coalition program. So therefore I do not see the problem. Also, FPOe leader and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has repeatedly emphasized that there is no space for anti-Semitism in his party. As far as I got to know him and other members of the party, I can tell that no one of them is anti-Semitic nor tolerates it.

Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, October 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The Israeli government announced that it will for now not interact with FPOe politicians and only have contact with the professional level in ministries headed by FPOe politicians. The Foreign Ministry told me that this includes you. How do you feel about Israel’s decision to “boycott” members of the FPOe?

Some high-ranking Israeli diplomats congratulated me since my appointment. We will see what’s going to happen in the following month but I’m confident that we will find a mutually respectful way of interaction with the Israeli government in the future.

Also, Israeli media have in recent weeks made a big deal over the fact that you appeared to have compared, in your book about the Middle East, Zionism with Nazi Germany’s “blood-and-soil ideology.” Can you please explain in what context you made this ostensible comparison, and whether you indeed think that Zionism can be compared to the Nazis’ ideology?

To insinuate any comparison between Nazism and Zionism is utter nonsense. I have never made any such comparison.

What I pointed out is the historical fact that Theodor Herzl was certainly inspired by the nationalist aspirations that swept through many European countries during the 19th century. You always have to see things in the historical context. Some journalists only pointed out one line of the book without explaining the content.

What’s important today is that myself and the new Austrian government are and remain committed to Israel as a Jewish state and to a two-state-solution, where Israel and Palestine live side by side, in peace and prosperity.

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