As Kurz visits, Israel signals it may ease boycott on far-right Austrian party

Netanyahu heaps praise on chancellor, says Jerusalem to ‘intensify’ contacts with Vienna despite ban on Freedom Party-affiliated minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday told visiting Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that Israel was stepping up contacts with Vienna, heaping praise on his counterpart and appearing to signal a thaw in Jerusalem’s freezing out of a far-right coalition party that has been accused of Nazi links.

Netanyahu thanked Kurz for his strong support of Israel and his commitment to combat European anti-Semitism, calling the Austrian leader “a true friend of Israel and the Jewish people,” and Kurz vowed to “raise awareness” of Israel special security needs in Europe.

During the meeting, Netanyahu said Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem has been instructed to “intensify contacts” with the foreign ministry in Vienna, a shift in from Israel’s policy of keeping interactions with the body to a minimum because of its ties to Austria’s far-right.

The government headed by Kurz includes the far-right Freedom Party, which Israel boycotts due to its past as a haven for neo-Nazis and its current xenophobic policies.

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 Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who is affiliated with the FPOe (though she is not formally a party member).

Netanyahu had previously instructed Rotem to examine how Israel should interact with Vienna in light of FPOe’s rise.

One of Kurz’s goals during his trip to Israel had reportedly been to lobby for an end to the FPOe boycott.

At a reception held at the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu highlighted a speech Kurz gave earlier this year in which he acknowledged that Austrians were not only victims of Nazi Germany but also “perpetrators.”

“These are courageous and bold words and I think they chart the course that you’re leading in Austria and our relationship, one that I support very, very much,” he said.

Netanyahu praised Kurz for his declared willingness to raise Israel’s concerns within the EU, saying that Jerusalem feels that Brussels sometimes fails to take them into considerations.

“This is a breath of fresh air. And this is leadership,” Netanyahu said of the 31-year-old chancellor.

The prime minister also praised Kurz for visiting the Western Wall on Sunday, saying that he hoped that other European leaders would “follow your important example.”

In his remarks, Kurz vowed to advocate for Israel in Europe, and reiterated his commitment to stamp out anti-Semitism, despite his alliance with FPOe.

“We will try to raise awareness in Europe for the special situation and the special security needs of Israel,” Kurz said.

Austria will assume the European Union’s presidency on July 1.

“We Austrians know that in light of our own history, we have a special responsibility toward Israel and the Jewish people,” Kurz said. “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].” At this point during his remarks, Netanyahu jokingly asked if Israel and Austria could switch neighbors for a few weeks, to which Kurz replied: “Not sure about that, not sure about that.”

‘Striving for friendly contact with Israel’

The FPOe is the junior member in Austria’s governing coalition, sitting in government with Kurz’s right-of-center People’s Party.

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.

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

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 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.”

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