Apparently there is nothing new under the clouds of Vienna. Take Joerg Haider, for example. He is currently finishing a book titled "I and Saddam." Rumors in the Austrian capital also have it that Haider is about to pack up his things this week and exchange his famous solarium for some real sun - Baghdad sun.
The last embrace the extreme right-wing Austrian leader gave his good friend in Baghdad in February, 2002, led to massive criticism at home and abroad. Even in his own Freedom Party it stirred up quite a storm. This time? Now everyone is imitating him, he says. Today, "We are all Saddam."
Not just German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, not just French President Jacques Chirac and the leaders of Belgium - who are all among Haider's most vehement critics - but millions of people around the world, ordinary folks from the left and the right as well as intellectuals and celebrities.
Haider's well-known provocations no longer interest the international media. Pamela Anderson recently burst into the heart of the Viennese aristocratic scene, when she took part in the traditional opera ball, and her silicon implants interested Vienna more than the make-up of the new government.
Last time the Freedom Party was brought into the government, in February, 2000, the world was shocked. The European Union imposed sanctions on Austria and Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna. The reconstitution last week of the "black-blue" coalition of the conservative People's Party and the extremist Freedom Party this time brought mostly yawns.
There are several reasons for the international indifference, with which Israel it seems has also been infected. First, the European scene has changed significantly. The old continent has become more right wing and in some of the countries even populist or post-fascist parties are in power. Second, the Freedom Party lost about two-thirds of its strength in the last elections - down from 27 percent to 10 percent. It has become a minority - some say marginal - party in the new government.
This is expressed in the joint platform - some of its provisions look like they have been forced on the humiliated members of the Freedom Party. Perhaps most important of all, the critics of the Austrian government have discovered that the Haiderian genie is not so terrible. One western diplomat testifies that in all his years of service in Austria he has not encountered a single anti-Semitic incident.
However, there should be no mistake. Despite his plucked feathers Haider in fact continues to lead the Freedom Party. Its representatives in government, among them his sister Ursula Haubner who has been appointed a deputy minister, obey him and hang on his every word. Commentators suggest that even if Haider has lowered his profile a bit, this is only because he wants to be elected governor of Carinthia again in March, 2004. He is saving his campaign of revenge, unbridled outbursts and government crises until after those elections.
Peter Sichrovsky, who earned the nickname "Haider's court Jew," today admits that he was mistaken when he thought he could change the Freedom Party from within and assumed that he could knock the anti-Semitic card from Joerg Haider's hand. Sichrovsky, who resigned from the party before the elections, said in a telephone conversation that "perhaps I was naive. Perhaps they exploited me." In his view Haider will not succeed in restraining himself until 2004 and his attempt to topple the government will come sooner.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who met with people from the European Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, learned from them about a complex dilemma with which he will have to deal. On one hand, it is worth exploiting the great weakness of the Freedom Party to restore the level of full diplomatic relations with a government which in its previous tenure "did more than any other government to deal with its past." On the other hand, the cancelation of the boycott should not be interpreted as the end of a mistaken policy, which would give a propaganda victory to Haider and his historical revisionism.
The professionals at the Foreign Ministry are therefore recommending a "time out" of two or three months which would allow it to appraise the nature of the new Austrian government. Afterward, it might call for a gradual normalization of relations that would be accompanied by various steps in Austria. These could include completing the reparations agreement from 2000, accepting historic declarations and establishing projects to commemorate the Holocaust, thus demonstrating goodwill and leading to the renewal of full diplomatic relations.
However, it seems that for the Foreign Ministry in Vienna, which has shrugged off the label of leper, this is no longer an urgent matter. "We did the utmost to get close to Israel. The ball is now entirely in the Israeli court," they say there.
"What really hurts," says Sichrovsky, "is that no one in Vienna even cares any more whether or not there is an Israeli ambassador here."
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