Jewish-Austrian MP: Now’s not the time to move our embassy to Jerusalem

Jewish-Austrian MP: Now’s not the time to move our embassy to Jerusalem

Far-right Freedom Party supports relocation, but Martin Engelberg, of the ruling People's Party, says no moves should be made before peace deal

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

Martin Engelberg, a freshman lawmaker for the People’s Party (OeVP), on his first day in parliament, November 9, 2017 (courtesy)
Martin Engelberg, a freshman lawmaker for the People’s Party (OeVP), on his first day in parliament, November 9, 2017 (courtesy)

The sole Jewish parliamentarian from Austria’s ruling party is currently opposed to moving the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In an email interview with The Times of Israel, Martin Engelberg, a freshman lawmaker for the People’s Party (OeVP), endorsed the international consensus on the matter, arguing that any such steps should only be taken after an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has been signed.

Engelberg — an active member of Vienna’s Jewish community — was sworn in Thursday, marking the first time that two Jews are sitting in the country’s parliament since World War II. The other is David Lasar, a second-term legislator for the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

The OeVP, which with 31.5 percent of the votes became Austria’s largest party in the October 15 election, is conducting coalition negotiations with the FPOe. Many Jews consider the FPOe taboo due to its past as a haven for neo-Nazis and current populist policies. Israel has a no-contact policy with the FPOe, although some members of the Likud Party advocate for the government to change this position.

FPOe and OeVP are widely expected to agree on establishing a government in the coming weeks.

In June, FPOe leader Hans-Christian Strache vowed to relocate the Austrian Embassy if he came into a position of power. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year, he 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

But Engelbert, a 58-year-old psychologist and writer from Vienna, indicated that his party and its leader, Chancellor-elect Sebastian Kurz, are not interested in moving the embassy.

“The international position on this is clear,” he told The Times of Israel. “From our perspective, now is not the right time to talk about it. A negotiated solution [between Israelis and Palestinians] must be the basis for all possible future moves.”

Asked about his party’s position on Israeli settlements, he replied: “Sebastian Kurz and his new People’s Party will continue to clearly express and demonstrate its friendship, bond and responsibility for Israel in the future.”

He did not respond to a followup question asking him to clarify his and Kurz’s position on the matter.

Engelbert, who publishes “NU – Jewish magazine on culture for culture and politics,” also was very careful in discussing the FPOe, calling the party “populist” but stopping short of endorsing Israel’s policy not to engage with it.

Posted by Martin Engelberg on Thursday, 9 November 2017

“The Freedom party is one of the populist parties in Europe, which in recent years achieved great gains at the polls. Among those there are great differences: there are right-wing but also left-wing populists and those that do not fit into these categories,” he said.

France’s National Front cannot be compared with the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom and the Alternative for Germany is not the same as Austria’s FPOe, he added.

Austria’s Jewish community and many Jewish organizations worldwide called on Kurz not to build a coalition with the FPOe, citing the party’s problematic past and current positions, which critics say are racist and xenophobic.

Kurz during a press conference in Vienna, October 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Kurz and his party take the Jewish community’s concerns “very seriously,” Engelbert, said. “But we also know that with Sebastian Kurz we will have someone leading Austria who is a real friend of the Jewish community and of Israel. And he also clearly positioned himself against anti-Semitism and racism. We can continue to rely on this also in the future.”

Jews in Austria can freely practice their religion, Engelberg noted, adding that there are “no political aspirations” to curtain the rights of Jews to perform ritual slaughter, circumcision or wear skullcaps in public.

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