Israel’s security in Austria’s ‘national interest,’ visiting chancellor says

In Jerusalem, Sebastian Kurz acknowledges guilt for Holocaust crimes and vows to fight anti-Semitism, does not address far-right coalition partner

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

Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the AJC Global Forum in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the AJC Global Forum in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s security is in Austria’s national interest, the country’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Monday, accepting his country’s guilt for Holocaust crimes and vowing to fight anti-Semitism and stand up for the Jewish state in the Middle East.

In a sweeping address to the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Jerusalem, Kurz declared Israel’s security to be part of Vienna’s Staatsraison, or national interest, echoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made the same pledge 10 years ago in the Knesset.

“As Austrians we will support Israel whenever it is threatened. We will be committed to the historic moral obligation that we have as Austrians towards the security of Israel within our capacity as a neutral country,” Kurz told the AJC delegates in the capital’s International Convention Center.

“It’s our moral obligation that this is part of our Staatsraison, meaning in the national interest of my home country,” he added, speaking in English.

The German term is often translated as national interest, though Merkel’s office in 2008 rendered it as “my country’s raison d’être.”

“This means: the security of Israel is not negotiable to us,” Kurz went on. “We understand the serious security threats Israel is facing. We therefore fully condemn all acts of violence, inside Israel, at its borders and beyond.”

Israel’s security situation is unique, he posited. “When it comes to war, other countries may lose one or more battles, but can still survive. With Israel, it’s different. Israel is a strong but small country. It cannot afford to lose even one single battle, as this would determine its end.”

Stopping short of discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any detail, Kurz merely said that a “commitment to a peaceful future is needed from all sides.”

“Austria will keep on reminding its counterparts in this region that Israel is here to stay. And that it is their duty to find a way to accommodate themselves with this fact,” he said

Earlier on Monday, during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kurz said he would try to “raise awareness in Europe for the special situation and the special security needs of Israel,” previewing his country’s upcoming stewardship of the EU, slated to begin in July. Netanyahu praised Kurz’s promise, calling him a “true friend of Israel and of the Jewish people.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)

During his speech to the AJC Global Forum — which gathered Jewish community leaders for its first-ever summit in Jerusalem — Kurz went to great length to accept Austria’s wartime guilt and to assure his audience that his government will do whatever it takes to teach about the Holocaust to young people and fight anti-Semitism, both from the far-right and newer sources of it in Muslim migrant communities.

“I personally find it unbelievable and unacceptable that even almost a century after the Shoah, anti-Semitism still exists in our world today. Austria bears a special historical responsibility in this context: to support Jewish life in our country and to protect it against all forms of anti-Semitism,” the 31-year-old chancellor said.

“No matter if it has been present for a long time or it is newly imported: there is and shall never be room for it in Austria — and we will continue to fight for that every day.”

Austria’s historical responsibility includes a “special responsibility” toward Israel, he added, explaining that this led his government to adopt “a proactive agenda when it comes to supporting the state of Israel,” including the first-ever “clear and formal commitment in the coalition program to Israel as a Jewish state.”

Kurz did not address, however, the fact that Israel and Austria’s Jewish community boycott his junior coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party, or FPOe, for its neo-Nazi past and its current xenophobic policies.

Many Austrians did nothing to fight the Nazi regime, he acknowledged. “Far too many actively supported these horrors and even were perpetrators,” he said.

Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the AJC Global Forum in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While some Austrians suffered under the Nazis, those “who watched and participated when their neighbors were robbed, thrown out and murdered were not victims. And the ones who committed the terrible mass murder of Jews were not victims at all,” he said.

“It took Austria a long time to be honest about its past. We have realized that Austria was not only a victim, but also a perpetrator,” he admitted. “Nevertheless, Austria has looked away far too long and has fulfilled its historical responsibility too late.”

While history cannot be undone, Austrians today are making great efforts to “ensure that the Shoah will never happen again and that my generation and succeeding generations will never forget these horrible crimes,” he promised.

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