In Austria, rise of pro-Israel, far-right faction forces Israel into corner

Anti-immigrant FPOe is set to become the country’s second-largest power on Sunday, which could lead to an improvement in bilateral ties — if Jerusalem stops boycotting the party

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

Chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache attends a press conference at FPOe headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on September 8, 2017. (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)
Chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache attends a press conference at FPOe headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on September 8, 2017. (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

As Austria heads to the ballot boxes on Sunday, projections show a far-right opposition party accused of having neo-Nazi sympathies is likely to become a junior party in the next coalition government.

Despite Israel blackballing the party thus far, insiders say the faction’s rise could lead to a drastic improvement of Austrian-Israeli diplomatic relations. Some even see the new government in Vienna moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though most peg the chances of that as slim.

If the latest surveys are accurate, Sebastian Kurz, the current foreign minister, will become the nation’s youngest-ever chancellor. But the 31-year-old Vienna native will most likely have to form a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which many Jewish and Israeli analysts deem xenophobic and even anti-Semitic.

The Israeli government currently refuses to engage with the Freedom Party, or FPOe, due to its reputation as a neo-Nazi party. If senior party member Norbert Hofer were to become foreign minister, as is common for runners-up in Austrian coalition governments, Jerusalem would have to choose between ending its longstanding policy not to interact with nationalist parties and boycotting a top diplomat of a friendly country.

FPOe head Heinz-Christian Strache, who has been to Israel several times but was not given meetings with senior officials, has publicly expressed his desire to become interior minister, though. Hofer, who last year unsuccessfully ran for the largely ceremonial position of president, has his eyes on the Foreign Ministry.

In 1999, after it became Austria’s second-largest party, FPOe joined a coalition government with the center-right People’s Party. The FPOe’s controversial leader Jörg Haider, who normally would have become chancellor, quit the party chairmanship. Many European countries still downgraded their contacts with Vienna and Israel recalled its ambassador, though it returned him a year later.

Chancellor of Austria and chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPOe), Christian Kern (L) shakes hands with Minister for Foreign Affairs and chairman of Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), Sebastian Kurz (R) upon their arrival on a set of Austrian Puls 4 private television station for a campaign televised debate on October 8, 2017 in Vienna. (AFP PHOTO / APA / HERBERT NEUBAUER)

“The first time the FPOe entered government, the other 14 EU countries boycotted its ministers, as did Israel,” said Cas Mudde, a Dutch-born political scientist focusing on political extremism and populism in Europe. “But we live in another world now. If Israel is embracing Donald Trump in the US, and defending Viktor Orbán in Hungary, it would be seen as hypocritical to ostracize Strache in Austria.”

What further complicates Israel’s position this year is the fact that Strache’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more closely resemble those of the Likud and Jewish Home parties than those of the Zionist Union. For instance, he supports Israel’s right to build settlements in the West Bank and advocates moving the Austrian Embassy from Ramat Gan to Jerusalem.

Indeed, in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year, the far-right leader said he would take it upon himself to do all in his power, “be it legislative or eventually executive, to move the Embassy from its actual place in Ramat Gan to Jerusalem.”

It was “totally absurd not to locate our Austrian Embassy in Jerusalem, as we do in other capitals of other countries all over the world,” he added. In the letter, he also asserted Israel’s “right to build wherever is required in the Land of Israel.”

The letter Austrian far-right leader Hans-Christian Strache sent to PM Netanyahu

Invited to Israel by Netanyahu’s Likud, Strache met with several party officials, including MK Yehudah Glick, who urges the government to stop its boycott of the FPoe, though ministers and more senior officials refused to sit down with him.

“We should definitely fight any racism and any anti-Semitism. But we should also definitely support anybody who expresses support for Israel,” Glick told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. While Israel should be “careful not to be anti-Islam,” the FPOe is expressing legitimate concerns over “growing radical Islam,” the freshman lawmaker added.

“Strache paid a political price for kicking out anti-Semites from the party. And also I don’t think he’s a racist,” he added.

The head of the Likud Court, former MK Michael Kleiner, also publicly advocates for Israel to end its current policy of boycotting the FPOe party since Strache is a friend of Israel. The party also counts among its lawmakers a member of the Vienna Jewish community, David Lasar.

Glick, Kleiner and a handful of additional Likud activists who share their views, appear to be a minority in Israel. Half a dozen analysts interviewed for this article characterized the party as xenophobic, with many members still silently harboring anti-Semitic sentiments.

“There is no doubt that the FPOe is trying as much as possible, especially in recent years, to distance itself from being called a neo-Nazi party. But one must remember: this is exactly who they were,” said Adi Kantor, who researches Israel-Europe relations for the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“There were clear anti-Semites and former Nazis in this party from the very beginning in the 50s. The leaders of the party, and Strache himself, believe until today that Austria was a victim of National-Socialism and that they were ‘occupied’ and therefore cannot be blamed as a state for what had happened to the Jews,” she charged, quoting the party leader as saying there is only “individual” —  not “national” — guilt when it comes to Austria in the Nazi era.

“This is not correct. Austria welcomed with open arms the National-Socialists in 1938. To claim until today they were victims is historically very problematic and incorrect,” Kantor said.

What does it say about Israel’s values? Did we forget that we were also once refugees?

By embracing Austria’s far-right, Israeli politicians “are making a very poor decision,” she opined. “They regard them, maybe from nativity and lack of knowledge, as friends of Israel. They are not. Among them, there are also clear anti-Semites,” she alleged.

Like other far-right parties in Europe, including Germany’s ascendant AfD, the FPOe is portraying itself as philo-Semitic and pro-Israel to advance its anti-Muslim agenda, including its hardline positions on migrants.

“What does it say about Israel’s values? About democracy? About human rights that we so respect? Did we forget that we were also once refugees? We have a short memory,” Kantor asked.

“Kleiner further argued that Strache wanted to learn about Israel and encourage Europeans to buy Israeli products,” noted Sharon Pardo, an expert on European politics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Kleiner stated that Israel should not give a cold shoulder to people who want to show her love.”

Mudde, the Dutch political scientist, said the Likud party’s embrace of the FPOe fits neatly into its political worldview.

“The Netanyahu governments have taken a very short-sighted realpolitik position on several populist radical right parties in Europe… inspired by the (false) ideas that the European political establishment is anti-Israel and that anti-Islam parties are natural allies of Israel (read: Likud),” he wrote to The Times of Israel in an email. “With some noticeable exceptions… these populist radical right parties are not really pro-Israel and, in general, do not advance the broader goal of a liberal democratic Israel.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz in Jerusalem on April 23, 2014. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash 90)

The FPOe’s pro-Israel stance is inspired by several different motivations, but sympathy for Israel is secondary, Mudde assessed. “Israel has become a cause celebre for anti-Islam politicians around the world. FPOe also hopes that a pro-Israel position will normalize it within Austria, cleansing it from its ‘brown’ stigma. And, finally, they will hope to attract some support and votes from Austrian Jews.”

The first foreign embassy in Jerusalem?

If projections showing FPOe coming in second behind Sebastian Kurz’s center-right Austrian People’s Party, or OeVP, pan out, the location of Austria’s embassy in Israel may play into coalition negotiations,  a senior Austrian official told The Times of Israel.

While admitting the speculative nature of such predictions, the senior official reasoned that the FPOe might insist on the mission’s relocation to Jerusalem, in part to mollify Jewish and Israeli critics who consider the party taboo.

Kurz, 31, might actually consider moving the embassy, the official argued, only to show boldness and willingness to do things differently than his predecessors, as he promised during the election campaign.

Austria would of course continue to endorse a two-state solution, but argue that time has come to recognize that in all possible outcomes West Jerusalem will remain a part of Israel and thus there is no obstacle to moving the embassy there.

Most countries refuse to locate their embassies in Jerusalem, saying the whole city is subject to final-status negotiations.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the Austrian election. In private conversations, however, officials say they are planning for any possible scenario, though Jerusalem is unlikely to make any public statement before coalition negotiations in Vienna are concluded.

Likud MK Yehudah Glick in the Knesset, May 29, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Glick tried to convince Israeli diplomats to lift their boycott of the FPOe, but said they remain adamantly opposed to the idea. He quoted a senior Foreign Ministry official saying that Israel, a country in which nearly a quarter of the population is Muslim, cannot allow itself to be working together with an Islamophobic party.

“I was very disappointed with the conversations I had in the Foreign Ministry. They’re very closed-minded and unwilling to change their dogma,” he said.

Fake news scandal

Anti-Semitic sentiments and accusations of anti-Semitism were also at the center of a scandal that has rocked the Austrian political scene in recent weeks, with  Israeli political adviser Tal Silberstein accused of ginning up opposition to the OeVP.

Analysts say the scandal will likely bury whatever chances the ruling Social Democratic Party SPoe had of winning the election.

The scandal unraveled a few weeks ago with the appearance of social media sites spreading “fake news” about the OeVP’s Kurz.

The campaign included suggestions that Kurz held anti-Semitic sentiments, prompting the rival party to charge that the SPOe was violating anti-Nazi laws on Facebook.

Another page, called “The Truth about Sebastian Kurz,” accused Kurz of being in cahoots with Jewish US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. The goal of the anti-Semitic and xenophobic messages was clear, observers say — to discredit Kurz with the right-wing camp.

In recent days, evidence has emerged showing the campaign was masterminded by Silberstein, a former adviser to Christian Kern.

The SPOe had fired Silberstein in August after he was arrested in Israel over his alleged involvement in money laundering, charges he denies, in a case connected to diamond magnate Beny Steinmetz.

Silberstein was one of four suspects arrested in Israel following a joint investigation with Swiss and American authorities.

Discussing the affair this week, Kurz said that there was a referendum now about “whether we want the Silbersteins in Austria,” a comment that some observers interpreted as having anti-Semitic undertones itself (a claim Kurz vehemently denies).

Despite the unprecedented brouhaha over Sunday’s election, Austria’s ambassador to Israel, Martin Weiss, said he has no doubts bilateral ties will continue to grow.

“I am, frankly, not too worried about the future of Austrian-Israeli relations. We have come a long way during the past years: Austria is facing up to its own historic responsibility in the Shoah and does not try to hide behind the all too convenient ‘we ourselves were victims of the Nazis’ argument any longer,” he told The Times of Israel this week.

Weiss was hesitant to discuss a possible Israeli reaction to the expected strong showing of the FPoe, merely indicating that he hopes Jerusalem will judge the new Austrian government not by preconceived notions but by its policies. “Because while concerns and fears must never be taken lightly,” he said, “government actions are – I believe – where it really counts.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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