Housing Minister Yoav Galant met Monday with Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, becoming the first Israeli government official to engage in contact with representatives of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).
Kneissel tweeted a picture with Galant, writing that the two had an “unofficial” talk at a meeting of the Union for the Mediterranean in Barcelona.
She noted that the they “had an exchange of views on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.” Kneissel once studied international relations at Hebrew University and speaks some Hebrew.
Israel has been boycotting the FPOe, though it is a member of Austria’s ruling coalition, due to its past as a haven for neo-Nazis and its current xenophobic policies.
#UfM Regional Forum provided an excellent opportunity for an informal encounter with Israeli Minister of Construction and Housing Yoav Galant. Had an exchange of views on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. pic.twitter.com/mvhpM1KrTq
— Karin Kneissl (@Karin_Kneissl) October 8, 2018
Since FPOe’s rise to parliament in Austria’s 2017 election, Israel has maintained a policy of keeping official contact with the party at the civil service level only, avoiding any interaction with ministers, including Kneissl.
Kneissl is not a member of the FPOe, but is affiliated with the party and was nominated by FPOe to serve as foreign minister in the current government.
Despite the Freedom Party’s inclusion in the government, Austria and Israel have moved significantly closer since Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s election.
In September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Kurz on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Netanyahu said Kurz had briefed him on steps taken by the Austrian government to strengthen ties with the Jewish community in the country and to safeguard the community and its history. He also praised him for the efforts to counter anti-Semitism, including the shutting down of a far-right magazine “Die Aula.”
Ahead of the meeting, Israel Radio reported that the two would likely discuss ending Israel’s boycott of the FPOe. Specifically, the report said Israel was likely to end its boycott of Kneissl. However, it is not clear whether the matter was indeed discussed.
Austrian Jews are staunchly opposed to the party, arguing that it has not done enough to distance itself from its anti-Semitic past and that it still promotes problematic positions.
Founded in 1956, it emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights. Its first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS and its last one was Joerg Haider, the controversial son of a former Nazi party official.
Haider attracted negative publicity by praising the Third Reich’s “orderly” employment policy, calling SS veterans “decent people” and describing concentration camps as “punishment camps.” He was killed in a car crash in 2008.
Under FPOe’s current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, now Austria’s vice chancellor, the party has made strides to distance itself from pro-Nazi views and has adopted strong pro-Israel positions.
In December, Strache said Vienna was “striving for an honest, sustainable, and friendly contact with Israel,” and vowed his far-right party would be “an essential partner in Europe’s fight against anti-Semitism.”
Signs of the thaw were visible when Kurz visited Israel in June.
During that visit he vowed to advocate for Israel in Europe, which often takes an anti-Israel stance.
“We Austrians know that in light of our own history, we have a special responsibility toward Israel and the Jewish people,” Kurz said at the time “I can assure you that Austria will fight all forms of anti-Semitism in Europe with determination, be it still an existing one, or also newly imported anti-Semitism.”
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.