Netanyahu to visit Vienna, a first for an Israeli premier in 20 years

Netanyahu to visit Vienna, a first for an Israeli premier in 20 years

PM will attend conference dedicated to fighting ‘anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism;’ won’t meet with officials from far-right Freedom Party

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to travel to Vienna later this month to attend a conference on anti-Semitism and participate in a series of bilateral meetings.

Netanyahu’s planned trip — the first of an Israel prime minister to the Austrian capital since 1997 — was announced Wednesday by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

“It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu for an official visit to Austria!” he wrote on his Twitter account, adding that he was looking “forward to attending the conference together” with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s two-day visit, between November 20-21, comes amid increasingly close ties between Jerusalem and Austria’s right-wing government.

In Vienna, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Kurz and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.

But the highlight of the trip will be his participation in the conference on the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which the Austrian government is organizing in the framework of its current presidency of the European Union.

“2018 is a special year of commemoration,” Kurz said in a filmed message posted to his Twitter account, referring to the anti-Jewish pogroms that took place throughout Germany and Austria 80 years ago this month.

“We must always remember our historic responsibility and do everything in our power to fight all forms of anti-Semitism,” he said. “If Jewish people do not feel safe in many place in Europe in 2018, then this should not only make us think, but requires all of us to take joint action.”

Netanyahu is also expected to visit Vienna’s main synagogue, known as Stadttempel, and meet with representatives of Austria’s Jewish community.

Sources in Vienna told The Times of Israel that he is not expected to meet officials from the far-right Freedom Party, which Israel boycotts due to its Nazi past.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima during a joint press conference in Vienna, Austria, September 22, 1997 (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

The last visit to Austria of an Israeli prime minister was in 1997, when Netanyahu met with then-chancellor Viktor Klima and other officials.

Kurz and Netanyahu last met in New York in September at the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly.

“The prime minister expressed his appreciation for a series of decisions and steps taken by the Austrian government under Chancellor Kurz in recent months,” the Prime Minister’s Office said after their meeting.

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.”

Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl (C) and Belgium’s Foreign Minister Didier Reynders attend a Foreign Affairs Council at the European Council in Brussels, January 22, 2018. (AFP/Emmanuel Dunand)

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 Austrian Foreign Minister Karin 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, the party 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.

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache is seen at a press conference after the first meeting of Austria’s new cabinet on December 19, 2017 in Vienna, Austria. (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

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.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

read more: