UNITED NATIONS — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Wednesday with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, amid increasingly close ties between Jerusalem and the right-wing government in Vienna.
“The prime minister expressed his appreciation for a series of decisions and steps taken by the Austrian government under Chancellor Kurz in recent months,” a statement from Netanyahu said after the two met 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 Austria 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 Kurz’s coalition party, the far-right Freedom Party, due to its past as a haven for neo-Nazis and its current xenophobic policies.
Specifically, the radio said Israel was likely to end its boycott of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who is affiliated with the FPOe (though she is not formally a party member).
However, the was no mention of this in Netanyahu’s statement. Kurz told Israel Radio the meeting was “excellent.”
Despite the Freedom Party’s inclusion in the government, Austria and Israel have moved significantly closer since Kurz’s election.
Austrian Jews are also staunchly opposed to the party, known by its German acronym FPOe, arguing that it has not done enough to distance itself from its anti-Semitic past and that it still promotes problematic positions.
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 contact with ministers, including Kneissl.
Netanyahu had previously instructed the Foreign Ministry to examine how Israel should interact with Vienna in light of FPOe’s rise.
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 Kurz 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.”
“We also know that our responsibility does not end at our borders and to support the State of Israel and also your security situation,” Kurz said, adding that Israel’s “neighbors are not like ours, Liechtenstein or die Schweiz [Switzerland].”