Far-right Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who four years ago caused a storm by posting an anti-Semitic cartoon on his Facebook page, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Israel on Tuesday as part of what he claims is an official visit to Israel at the invitation of the Likud party.
The Austrian daily newspaper Die Presse reported Tuesday that Strache’s motive for the visit was “to make himself kosher in Israel” in the belief that if the Jewish state accepted him, other world leaders would do so too.
Strache’s official Facebook page says he’s in the country on an official visit at the invitation of Likud and that he will be meeting with high-ranking Israeli politicians.
One politician he will not be meeting with is former president Shimon Peres, who, after consulting with the Foreign Ministry, turned down a request for a meeting received from Strache’s office in March.
A senior source in Peres’s office told Haaretz that the Foreign Ministry’s opinion was “most negative,” that the Freedom Party was seen as an extreme right-wing party with which contacts are not maintained, and that Strache should not be given the legitimacy a meeting with Peres would confer.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said that Strache’s visit was not coordinated by the government, which “has no connection” with it.
Arriving Monday on an El Al flight, Strache is part of a seven-strong delegation led by Jewish politician, and Vienna City Council member, David Lasar.
The invitation to Strache to visit Israel was extended in January by Eli Hazan, Likud’s head of information and external communications, and former MK Michael Kleiner, president of the Likud’s internal court, Haaretz reported.
Israel’s official policy toward the Freedom Party is to boycott it and prohibit government officials from meeting with its representatives.
Still, some right-wing Israeli figures — among them Kleiner, who is close to Strache and the Freedom Party — have pressed for years for the ban to be reversed, citing Strache’s anti-Muslim position and his support for settlement building.
Around two years ago, during the tenure of MK Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) as foreign minister, then Foreign Ministry director general Nissim Ben-Shitreet met with Freedom Party figures to explore whether there was a case for changing the policy. Contacts continued when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assumed the mantle of foreign minister as well, but the cause lost momentum in the face of strident opposition from Foreign Ministry professionals as well as some negative coverage in the press.
Strache inherited the Freedom Party crown in 2005 after his mentor, the late Jörg Haider, left the party.
In 2012, a storm erupted over a cartoon he posted on his Facebook page showing a banker with a large hooked nose and Star of David cuff links profiting from Europe’s financial crisis. The cartoon showed the corpulent banker being fed delicacies by a figure dubbed “The Government.” A third figure at the table, labeled “The People” — thin and poorly dressed — has a bone on his plate and looks on in dismay.
Die Presse on Tuesday said Austrian Jews were divided over Strache. Most Holocaust survivors oppose the Freedom Party, the paper said, but some share Strache’s view that the current wave of refugees is bringing new anti-Jewish sentiment into Austria.
In Austria’s 2013 general election, the Freedom Party won one in five votes, nearly four percent more than in elections held five years previously.