Text size

The government of Austria is festively declaring its intention to establish "special relations" with Israel based on the German model: It is announcing the establishment of a Holocaust museum, promising to publish "historic" statements at the highest level, and undertaking to complete the compensation agreement from 2000. Vienna is also speaking of initiating a special educational program, of increasing the rate of youth-exchange delegations, and of taking steps to commemorate the Holocaust and clarify Austria's role in it.

For its part, Israel is expressing satisfaction with the "new and positive line" of the Austrian government, announcing, as a result, that it will return its ambassador to Vienna following an absence of some two-and-a-half years. Jerusalem is not forgetting to stress that its decision should not be seen as recognition of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party, which is a partner in the government with which it is upgrading its relations.

The above is not a fantastic description, but rather the chronicles of a diplomacy foretold. While sources in Jerusalem admit that the script is a reliable one, "but will not transpire in the coming days," assessments in Vienna speak of its realization "already during the course of September," in conjunction with the arrival of a new Austrian ambassador to Israel.

The arguments in favor of a return to full diplomatic relations are well known: The current Austrian government has done more than any other since World War II to face up to its past. In 2000, the government signed historic agreements to compensate victims of the Nazis and the forced laborers. Austria's policy - the fruit of an understanding between the two ruling parties, the conservative OeVP and the right-wing extremist Freedom Party - is defined as "very balanced with regard to Israel." Not a single anti-Semitic expression has been heard from the representatives of the Freedom Party in the government. For months now, the Austrian Jewish community itself has been pressing for a return of the Israeli ambassador to Vienna.

Europe, which lifted the sanctions on Austria seven months following their imposition, has changed markedly in the last two years. The far and populist right has established itself in more and more countries, and no one in Israel has thought of recalling ambassadors from such states.

One central problem remains for Israel: Joerg Haider. Despite the fact that he is a not a member of the government and doesn't - officially - head his party, he continues, to a large degree, to dictate the national agenda. He continues to use anti-Semitic codes, and to come out with harsh statements against the government of Israel and the man who heads it, even issuing a call to place him on trial for war crimes. The warm embraces he bestowed upon Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi caused much embarrassment to his party, as did his secretive talks with the leader of Vlaams Blok, the radical Flemish party with which he recently discussed the establishment of a European bloc of nationalist political factions.

Haider's announcement last week regarding his "final" retirement from federal politics is likely, on the face of it, to provide Israel with the deciding factor in its decision to renew full diplomatic ties with Austria: Haider was unable to convince the Freedom Party's ministers to demand that the government to implement the populist fiscal reform that was promised to the voters in the election campaign of 1999.

The leader of the party, Suzanne Riess-Passer, who serves as Austria's deputy chancellor, adopted the government's position, according to which the promised cut in taxes should be postponed to 2004. The unexpected expenses required to deal with the flood damage requires this, she explained. From her party colleagues, she demanded a decision - Haider or Riess-Passer. The members went with her; and Haider, who learned from the opinion polls how the pragmatic wing of the party was gaining in popularity at his expense, went home to Carinthia.

Nevertheless, it is unclear whether Haider truly knows the meaning of the word, "final." Already back in February, following his controversial trip to Baghdad, he announced his "final" retirement from politics, but retracted his statement the very next day. Those with a keen sense of hearing also noticed the word, "gradual," which Haider used in his announcement on "the end of [his] political career." Haider will certainly claim that he is distinguishing here between his presence in the realm of federal politics and his activities on the provincial level; however, it appears that the use of the words "end" and "gradual" is evidence, primarily, of semantic trickery and political maneuvering.

In light of the Haider-style Machiavellianism, there is still a good chance of bringing the elections forward to the spring of 2003, perhaps even the end of 2002. Reinstating an Israeli ambassador at the present time is tantamount to officially retracting the Israeli reservations concerning the government that Jerusalem chose to boycott in 2000 and which is likely to vacate its position next year. Since it is impossible to overstate the importance of the moral implications of such a decision, Israel would do well to delay taking it until the political picture in Austria becomes fully clear - until the final disappearance of Haider's sinister shadow.