Netanyahu congratulates Austria’s Kurz, but silent on partnership with far right
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Netanyahu congratulates Austria’s Kurz, but silent on partnership with far right

PM thanks the 31-year-old election winner for his country’s efforts to battle anti-Semitism and invites him to visit Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with Austria's then-foreign minister Sebastian Kurz in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with Austria's then-foreign minister Sebastian Kurz in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday called to congratulate Sebastian Kurz on his victory in Austria’s elections, according to a statement from his office that made no mention of the success of the far-right Freedom Party.

On Sunday, the 31-year-old Kurz’s  People’s Party (OeVP) swept to victory with a projected 31.7 percent of the vote, ahead of the Social Democrats (SPOe) at 26.9% and the anti-migrant Freedom Party (FPOe) at 26%, leading to the expectation that Kurz would turn to the far right party as a coalition partner.

In the call, Netanyahu said, “Austria has done much in recent years to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and in its fight against anti-Semitism.” He also raised the issue of “Iranian aggression,” according to the statement.

Netanyahu also invited Kurz to visit Israel. He was last in the Jewish state in May 2016 as foreign minister.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz puts on a kippah ahead of a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on May 16, 2016. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

Kurz, for his part, told the prime minister of his interest in boosting Austria’s ties with Israel, the PMO said.

The statement did not make any mention of the Freedom Party’s expected role as the junior partner in Kurz-led coalition. In 1999, Israel recalled its ambassador after the party, then under Jörg Haider, joined the government.

The success of the FPOe, which was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, has created a dilemma for Israel, whose government refuses to meet with members of the 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 of not interacting with ultra-nationalist parties and boycotting a top diplomat of a friendly country.

Freedom Party leader 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. Hofer, who last year unsuccessfully ran for the largely ceremonial position of president, has his eyes on the Foreign Ministry.

Chairman of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache attends a television debate about the Austrian general elections in Vienna on October 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Vladimir Simicek)

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 downgraded their contacts with Vienna and Israel recalled its ambassador, though it returned him a year later.

In light of the toxicity surrounding the party, Strache has sought to clean up the FPOe’s image and dismissed its neo-Nazi past as “naivete.”

While the party’s rise follows that of a number of other far-right parties in Europe, including the Alternative for Germany and France’s National Front, the FPOe is set to actually enter government, which in turn could further fuel divides in the European Union.

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