InterviewI learned from Israeli leaders to respond to fate with irony

Unfazed by current boycott, Austrian FM has fond memories of her time in Israel

Karin Kneissl, still shunned by Jerusalem for her ties with far-right Freedom Party, nostalgically recalls meeting Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Yitzhak Shamir in the late 80s

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl meets delegates at an international conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, February 14, 2019 (Angelika Lauber)
Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl meets delegates at an international conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, February 14, 2019 (Angelika Lauber)

Austrian Foreign Karin Kneissl says she is in no rush for the Israeli government to lift its boycott of her.

And yet, she revels in reminiscing about having lived and worked in the Jewish state three decades ago, when she took famed philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s courses at the Hebrew University and provided simultaneous translation for then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Kneissl, 54, is also nostalgic about the more recent past, when she was a respected journalist and academic with deep knowledge of the Middle East — someone Israeli diplomats wanted to meet. But in late December 2017, Jerusalem declared her persona non grata due to her affiliation with Austria’s far-right Freedom Party.

In an interview on the sidelines of last week’s Middle East conference in Warsaw, Kneissl spoke at considerable length about her experiences as a student in Israel in the late 1980s, as well as about Vienna’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and her country’s relationship with Iran.

“In the last 14 months that I have been foreign minister, I continuously had meetings with Israelis whom I knew from before, and who know me, and know who I am, who appreciate me and also visited me in the ministry,” Kneissl told The Times of Israel, sitting on a couch in Warsaw’s PGE Narodowy soccer stadium.

Among those Israelis who are still willing to meet her are formerly high-ranking officials, she continued.

“Whoever knows me — and the Israeli ambassador in Vienna [Talya Lador] also knows me — was until 14 months ago interested to meet me for lunch. And I haven’t changed.”

Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren, right, interviews Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at the sidelines of an international conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, February 14, 2019 (Angelika Lauber)

The interview took place in the early morning of February 14, as the so-called Ministerial to Promote Peace and Security in the Middle East was getting underway. Kneissl greeted this reporter in fluent Hebrew, but soon switched to German.

Later that day, as the delegates gathered for a group photo, Kneissl briefly met and spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was apparently violating the no-contact policy he himself imposed on her.

It is unclear who started the conversation.

According to a senior official in Vienna who spoke with The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, Netanyahu approached Kneissl and a “short, friendly exchange of words” ensued.

Netanyahu’s office denied this account. “Israel’s policy has not changed with regard to the party. The minister surprised the prime minister and approached him unexpectedly. There was no conversation or meeting,” according to a PMO official, also speaking anonymously.

An Austrian newspaper published a brief clip of the two chatting, but it does not show who addressed whom first.

Kneissl is not a member of the Freedom Party, or FPOe, which Israel and Austria’s Jewish community shun because of its closeness to the neo-Nazi scene. But since she was appointed to her current post by the party, Jerusalem includes her in its no-contact policy.

It’s an absolutely inner-Israeli decision. They have their reasons for it

Asked if she was going to meet Netanyahu or Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem, who was also in Warsaw, on the sidelines of the conference, she replied that no meeting had been scheduled.

“They have many other worries other than meeting me. They really have entirely different problems,” she said.

Asked if she understands the Israeli government’s decision to boycott her, she replied: “This is not about understanding or about emotions. I simply take note of it. I am a relatively pragmatic person. I don’t question anything. It’s an absolutely inner-Israeli decision. They have their reasons for it.”

Austrian FM Karin Kneissl, left, addressing delegates at the Warsaw Middle East summit, February 14, 2019 (Angelika Lauber)

Since Kneissl is not formally a member of the FPOe and holds the foreign portfolio, it has long been rumored that Israel would eventually lift its no-contact policy.

Her encounter last week with Netanyahu was “an additional sign that the boycott against Mrs. Kneissl could end soon,” according to the senior official in Vienna.

Kneissl herself emphasized that she does not want to pressure Israel into lifting the boycott. “It’s an exclusively inner-Israeli decision-making process, and Israel has all the time in the world to make that decision.”

Notwithstanding the nonchalance with which she talks about Israel spurning her, Kneissl recalled fondly some of the people she met and experiences she had here 30 years ago.

“I know Israel relatively well. I studied at the Hebrew University Mount Scopus campus, and have wonderful memories from that time,” she said.

Kneissl, who spent part of her childhood in Jordan, came to Jerusalem in 1988 to do research for her doctoral thesis in international law, which dealt with the concept of borders in the Middle East.

Some of her professors included Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, and Itzhak Hans Klinghofer, a leading constitutional scholar.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

She also studied with and once interviewed for several hours the legendarily controversial Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was known for his contrarian views, including his condemnation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and his disdain for the Western Wall.

“When I was doing research for my dissertation, I had the great fortune to be allowed to research in the archives of the Prime Minister’s Office. Yitzhak Shamir was the prime minister at the time. I translated for him once at a conference, from French into Hebrew,” she recalled.

If there’s one thing she learned from the aforementioned figures it is to “respond to blows of fate with a portion of irony,” she said. “These men were freethinkers, and I consider myself a freethinker as well, and they impressed me with their courageous, critical, confident and risky thoughts and deeds.”

I spent a night atop Masada, showered in Ein Gedi, walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by foot

At the time, Kneissl managed to get a small stipend for her studies but worked part-time at the French hospice to make ends meet.

“In these one-and-half years I learned a great deal. It was a very interesting time for me,” she said. “I traveled with my backpack: I spent a night atop Masada, showered in Ein Gedi, walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by foot. These were opportunities that a few years later, due to the security situation and wall construction, were not possible anymore,” she said, referring to the West Bank security barrier.

“I am simply grateful that I was able to experience all that. Because I always say that without my experiences in the Middle East — and that’s equally true for Israel, Damascus, Amman and especially Lebanon, and later Iran — I wouldn’t have become the person that I am today.”

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at an international conference on the Middle East in Warsaw, February 14, 2019 (Angelika Lauber)

After her studies and travels, Kneissl became a diplomat, and in recent years focused on writing books and lecturing about the Middle East. In December 2017, FPOe chief and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache nominated her for the position of foreign minister

In a June 2016 letter to Netanyahu, Strache, before he was elected, promised to do everything in his power, “be it legislative or eventually executive,” to move Austria’s embassy to Jerusalem.

“At the time he wasn’t a member of the government. And the government’s position is to continue supporting a two-state solution,” Kneissl said. The current coalition government, headed by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, will continued to adhere to European Union policy, which includes support for a two-state solution, with East Jerusalem designated as capital of a future Palestinian state, she said.

Despite partnering with a party that is considered the political home of Austria’s neo-Nazi scene, Kurz is considered a good friend of Israel, thanks in part to his vow to stand up for Israel in international forums. Israel’s security is Austria’s “raison d’etat,” he declared repeatedly.

If so, how come Vienna continues to have good ties with Iran, a brutal dictatorship that near-daily threatens Israel with annihilation?

Kneissl answered this question by arguing that since the Iranian Revolution 40 years ago, there has been a disconnect between the Islamic Republic and the West, with the two sides not knowing enough about each other.

“The core of all diplomatic activity is to keep channels of communication open under all possible circumstances. And for us, as a small country that doesn’t have massive economic or security-related interests in the region, this is simply easier,” she said.

Her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is a “highly professional, interesting and interested conversation partner,” Kneissl said.

And what about the constant threats against Israel?

That’s a constant topic in bilateral discussions, she said, noting that Kurz publicly told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in July in Vienna that it was “absolutely unacceptable” to question the right of Israel to exist or call for the Jewish state’s destruction.

So how would she describe Vienna’s relations with Tehran?

“Correct,” Kneissl replied.

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