Despite official boycott, PM approached Austrian FM, senior Vienna official says

Despite official boycott, PM approached Austrian FM, senior Vienna official says

PM’s office denies conversation took place; Netanyahu said to have had a ‘short, friendly exchange of words’ with Karin Kneissl, who is affiliated with far-right Freedom Party

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

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week approached and briefly spoke with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl despite a formal boycott, according to a senior official in Vienna. The Prime Minister’s Office denied the claim.

In response to a query about the encounter, the PMO said in a statement: “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.”

Kneissl was appointed to her post by the far-right Freedom Party, which Jerusalem shuns due to its closeness to the neo-Nazi scene. She is not formally a member of the party and her office refused to comment on the reported meeting.

If it indeed took place, the encounter, which is said to have occurred Thursday at the sidelines of an international conference in Warsaw, would indicate that the Israeli government is no longer adhering to its declared policy of refraining from contact with officials affiliated with the FPOe, as the party is known in German.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 5, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A senior diplomatic official in Vienna confirmed to The Times of Israel that a brief meeting, including “some small talk,” took place at the sidelines of the so-called Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East” in the Polish capital, minutes after a photo of all delegates was taken.

Netanyahu approached Kneissl and a “short, friendly exchange of words” ensued, the senior official told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think that this meeting is an additional sign that the boycott against Mrs. Kneissl could end soon,” the official added.

Officially, Israel has not changed its no-contact policy regarding the FPOe and officials affiliated with the party, though it has long been rumored that Jerusalem may consider easing establishing a relationship with Kneissl, since she holds the foreign portfolio and is not officially a member of the party.

The Austrian Jewish community continues to advocate for a full boycott of the party — and Kneissl.

“It’s Israel’s decision how to deal with the FPOe. We in the Austrian Jewish community have a democratically elected board with seven different parties and a total of 24 members. This board has unanimously decided not to have any contact with the FPOe, not because of the party’s past, but because of the incidents in the present,” Austrian Jewish community leader Oskar Deutsch told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

Oskar Deutsch (courtesy)

“I believe the Israeli government is following the situation closely, and its policy is very reasonable. But it’s up to them,” Deutsch said. “I speak on behalf of my community — we have so far no reason to change our decision.”

Kneissl attends all major FPOe events and has so far failed to condemn FPOe-led attacks on shehita, or kosher ritual slaughter, and the numerous Nazi scandals party members are involved in, Deutsch lamented.

Would Austrian Jews be unhappy if Israel established contact with FPOe or Kneissl?

“Austrian Jews are very happy with many of the decisions the Israeli government makes, and less happy with some others. Not everyone agrees with everything,” Deutsch replied diplomatically.

“Of course, I am satisfied with the Israeli government’s course until now. But if they change course at some point, I will take note of that decision. What else could I do? I don’t see a reason why the government should change its position now,” he said.

Noting that it is a hypothetical question, Deutsch indicated that he may not publicly criticize Jerusalem if it indeed changes its policy on the FPOe or Kneissl.

“There are enough people in the world attacking Israel. I do not want to publicly attack the Israeli government,” he said, adding that Jerusalem’s current position “makes its foreign policy a truly Jewish position. Why should Jerusalem give up a Jewish foreign policy?” he asked rhetorically.

The Israeli government has “good reasons” for its policies vis-à-vis ministers running on an FPOe ticket, he went on, referring to Kneissl. “It is one aspect of the Jewish character of this wonderful democracy to not give a hechsher [kosher stamp] to a party like the FPOe.”

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