VIENNA - For 11 months now Avraham Toledo has been serving as the charge d'affaires at the Israeli Embassy in Vienna, seeing the desirable title "ambassador" dangle before his eyes, almost but not quite touching it and racking his brains over how to convince the government that the time has come to put an end to the sanctions it has imposed on the right-wing government of Austria.
Toledo's critics say that his ambition to be an ambassador is what is causing him to depict the Austrian government in a positive light. However, Toledo is not the only one who believes that the government of Israel should change its policy. These days it is hard to find anyone in Vienna who does not express a decided opinion on the Israeli-Austrian anomaly: In addition to politicians (including politicians from the opposition), academics and even leaders of the Jewish community have been calling recently for the restoration of full diplomatic relations.
Unwise, hypocritical, anachronistic - these are but some of the terms these critics are using to describe Israel's policy. Austria's Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner also says that she has "stopped understanding" us. The present Austrian government has done more than any other government since World War II to grapple with its past, she says in a conversation at Hoffburg, the imperial palace.
The understandable Israeli sensitivity, in her opinion, received an appropriate response when in 2000 the historic agreements for compensating victims of the Nazis and forced labor were concluded. Ferrero-Waldner, who recently returned from a visit to Auschwitz, stresses that these agreements, as well as "our very balanced policy with respect to Israel," are the fruit of a understanding between the two ruling parties: the conservative People's Party, of which she is a member, and the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Joerg Haider, which she describes as a "democratic party."
Probing questions about anti-Semitism and xenophobia almost insult her. "Apparently I am the only government minister in the European Union who is married to an immigrant and speaks five languages," she boasts. Haider? "After all, he has apologized for his problematic remarks. You tend to ignore this. As well as the fact that he is no longer the leader of his party."
The head of the Jewish community in Austria, Ariel Musicant, is perhaps the only person to have directly experienced Haider's anti-Semitism when he linked Musicant's name to the name of a laundry detergent in a slur involving "dirty." He recently called upon the Israeli government to appoint an ambassador to Vienna. Musicant, who argues that "Le Pen is far more anti-Semitic than Haider," believes that Austria has proven itself in international events, for example at the Durban conference, where it came out in defense of Israel.
Moreover, Europe itself, which canceled its sanctions on Austria seven months after it imposed them, has changed during the past year or two. The extreme right has established itself in more and more countries. A consistent policy would force Israel to recall its ambassadors from many European capitals.
Anton Pelinka is in the minority. The senior professor of political science at Innsbruck University, who became famous as a result of the slander trial Haider conducted against him, believe that the Freedom Party still has a negative influence on Austria and its government, as well as on the entire European Union, the expansion of which he is threatening to thwart.
Although Haider is not a member of the government, in contrast to the situation in the other countries of Europe, the extreme right party in Austria holds half the portfolios in the government. The appointment of an Israeli ambassador in Vienna would harm Austrian democracy as it would grant Haider and his historical revisionism a tremendous propaganda victory before the elections expected in Austria in 2003.
Indeed, it could be argued that sanctions and pressure of the sort applied by Israel are what led to the reparations agreements and also apparently led to Haider's - official - departure from the leadership of the party. However, in the meantime Haider continues to speak out quite strongly against the government of Israel and is calling for bringing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to trial for war crimes. He is also continuing to play the anti-Semitic card, as evidenced by the case of Musicant. The government ministers from his party, who are ostensibly moderate, are dependent on him and not the other way around. In fact, he continues to a large extent to dictate the Austrian agenda.
At the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, the assessment is that relations with Israel do not really interest the Austrians. They have a kind of pimple on their face. This is not a critical matter but it makes them look ugly. We are the pimple. The moment the sanctions are lifted and the pimple vanishes, relations are likely to deteriorate because Austria will no longer hesitate about coming out against Israel.
However, Jerusalem wants to indicate a willingness for change. The idea has come up to restore diplomatic relations gradually, parallel to Austrian steps that will show that it is honestly grappling with the past; there is also the idea of restoring diplomatic relations at once, but accompanied by a declaration that this is not tantamount to any recognition of the Freedom Party and its leaders.
Ferrero-Waldner discerns signs that "very soon we will return to full normalization." It would seem that she is too optimistic. Possibly Israel should have followed in Europe's footsteps. As it did not do so, it is not clear why it has to use Ferrero-Waldner's ladder at this time. Climbing down from the tree would better be put off until after the Austrian elections in 2003. Toledo, apparently, will have to wait.
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