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Nobody in Austria believed that he had it in him. That he had what it takes to be a national leader. That he had a chance to realize the long-term ambition of his life - to become the chancellor.

The last time we met, in June 2000, Alfred Gusenbauer was the head of the Austrian opposition. His Social Democratic Party was licking the wounds of its worst defeat since World War II. The almost-perpetual, red-black coalition had fallen apart after 14 consecutive years in power. Haider's Freedom Party, which won 27 percent in the October 1999 elections, consolidated its position in the government. Israel called back its ambassador from Vienna. Austria became a pariah state in the eyes of the world.

In Heldenplatz, the historic square where the Anschluss was declared in 1938, hundreds of young people gathered to express their revulsion at the developments in their country. They spoke of "the people's stupidity," its conformism, about "the need to act," and about "the suitcases that were already packed."

On the other side of the square Gusenbauer sat in his office in the Parliament building, and bemoaned the international sanctions, which operated as a boomerang and strengthened the coalition elements of Haider and of conservative chancellor Wolfgang Schussel.

Observers in Vienna claimed that the young opposition leader (only 41 years old at the time) who had been chosen to head his party after its historic collapse, was not meeting expectations. They claimed that he was nondescript. That he lacked charisma. That it was doubtful whether he could redeem the left.

He chose to ignore them. To focus on taking action. He worked to make the party younger and to increase the representation of women in it. Immediately after his election he went to the Parliament, where he delivered a unique speech. A kind of "request for historic forgiveness of the party throughout the generations," the appeal made by Ehud Barak to Israel's Sephardi population in 1997, after he became the leader of Labor for the first time. He apologized for the sin of including former Nazis in the ranks of the party after World War II. He ordered an investigation of this dark chapter.

Six years later Haider has been almost entirely erased from the political map and Gusenbauer, who proved that he has tactical talents and a rare ability to persevere in attaining his goal, is holding the reins of government.

Domestic problems

His visit to Israel this week - for the sixth time, but the first as chancellor - is meant to "renew the chapter of friendship with Israel," to lead to a reinforcement of bilateral relations and to send a clear message: Austria, which for years concealed its part in the crimes of the Nazis, is today choosing to confront its past and to accept responsibility for its deeds. The chancellor conveyed this message in the main speech that he delivered at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya - a speech that was designed to close a circle that was opened during the historic speech by chancellor Franz Vranitzky in Jerusalem in 1993. Vranitzky stated at the time that "the first victim of Nazism" - the Austrian nation's self-definition, which was devoutly adopted for about 50 years - "was also a hangman." Gusenbauer emphasized in his speech that "many perpetrators of the Holocaust were Austrians," and complained about the many years that it took his country to recognize that fact.

In an exclusive interview with Haaretz shortly before his return to Austria this past Tuesday, the chancellor proudly described the great efforts being invested by his government "in the area of education and of heightening sensitivity to anti-Semitism and racism in our country. We have done a great deal in order to learn from the historical mistakes and to accept responsibility for our deeds."

On the day of the interview, with embarrassing timing, a video clip publicized on the YouTube Web site showed Austrian soldiers exchanging "Heil Hitler" salutes at their base near Salzburg. Gusenbauer, asked to respond, promised to show "zero tolerance" for such incidents. He promised "a determined and constant fight against anti-Semitism and racism," added that Austria's defense ministry had immediately launched an investigation of the incident and that those involved "will have to defend themselves vis-a-vis the armed forces and the judiciary and to bear the consequences."

Asked whether it was possible to change the public mentality that has dominated Austria since the end of World War II, he replied: "It's a prolonged but crucial process. The Austrians provided a very clear answer to that question in the most recent elections [2006], in which Haider declined to his present status [barely passing the threshold, which is 4 percent - A.P.]. It was proven that his party is not worthy of ruling the country. Most of his power of attraction was lost."

Gusenbauer tends to ignore the fact that Haider's heir in the Freedom Party, Hans Christian Strache, is considered even more radical than his predecessor. The chancellor has been criticized by groups in the Jewish community, who complained about the "weak reaction" in light of the old photos that were published at the beginning of the year, in which Strache is seen in the company of neo-Nazis. "A youthful prank," was how Gusenbauer chose to describe it, after the publication of the photos. The fact that the extreme right-wing bloc (Strache's Freedom Party and Haider's party, which split from it) still managed to garner 15 percent of the electorate's support does not worry the chancellor. He prefers to concentrate on the full half of the cup - the 12 percent that the extreme right lost in the last elections: "That is a significant decline and we hope that this trend will continue."

Gusenbauer believes that Haider will not succeed in returning to his previous dimensions, that he is "dead" politically and that no extreme-right leader will be able to repeat his achievement: "If the government works responsibly and is able to provide the main needs of the population, the various populists will not find fertile ground on which to build themselves up."

In spite of the fact that he has realized his dream of coming to power, the chancellor is not having an easy time at all at home. Since his election he has encountered a significant absence of tolerance among the public and among his colleagues in the party. The criticism focuses on the fact that he distributed the main cabinet portfolios to his conservative partners ("His desire to serve as chancellor was stronger than anything else"), that he has already managed to violate his most important election promises, and that he "is not a man of vision and is not leading an agenda." Some people in Austria believe that his visit to Israel (although it was scheduled a long time ago) was meant to invest him with an international aura and to improve his status.

Syria's status

There was no hint of a reaction, during the interview, to all his country's domestic problems. Nor did he show any aftereffects following the very heavy, two-day schedule that was prepared for him here, during which he didn't miss a single meeting with any of the leaders of the government or the opposition in Israel, or with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. He looked fresh and relaxed, responded quickly, expressed himself with precision and didn't skip a single question. Even though he was about to step on a plane to return to Vienna, he looked as though he had all the time in the world.

One headline provided by the Austrian chancellor during his visit (which preceded yesterday's Israeli-Syrian tensions) dealt with Syria's status in the peace process. Gusenbauer spoke of "Syria's central role in stabilizing the Middle East," and asserted - in clear contrast to the position of the United States and Israel - that Damascus should "come out of the cold, and play a constructive role in stabilizing the region." When asked to clarify his viewpoint, it turns out that he is guided not by love of Bashar, but by hatred of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "We must think how to limit the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. One political method is related to the attempt to neutralize some of Iran's partners and allies. The most important of these allies is Syria. We must prevent a situation in which Syria closes itself up in the 'Iranian corner,' thus strengthening Tehran. We must make sure to present Syria with alternatives and to prevent Iran from turning into a 'one-way ticket' for it. It would be very useful if Syria were to agree to participate in the international summit" in the United States in November.

Gusenbauer notes that his position is not exceptional in today's Europe. He says that all the countries of the European Union are becoming more flexible in this direction, and even France - which is the toughest of them all in its attitude to Syria - has recently been changing its stance.

At a time when the key to the detente that he wants to forge with Damascus lies in Tehran, Gusenbauer sharply attacks Iran's belligerence and its nuclear program. During his speech in Herzliya, observers who closely followed the reaction of Austrian-born Israelis to the chancellor's determined remarks, could not miss their raised eyebrows: Only two months ago, when the president of the Austrian Parliament, Barbara Prammer, visited here, the Central Committee of Jews from Austria in Israel submitted a memo to her, in which it complained of the fact that the Austrian firm OMV [one-third of whose shares are held by the Austrian government, and which is directly connected to senior members in the Social Democratic Party] had signed an agreement of cooperation with the Iranian national oil company.

According to reports, this is a project for developing Iranian gas fields, with an investment of $30 billion over 25 years. "Cooperation with Iran is a particular insult for us, Austrian Holocaust survivors, since [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust and publicly announces the destruction of the State of Israel," according to the group's memo.

Gusenbauer gives three answers to the complaints of "Austrian hypocrisy": First, the intention of a potential cooperative agreement is to make Austria less dependent on the supply of Russian gas. Second, "Cosi fan tutte" (Everyone does it): "OMV is not the first company in Iran. Many Western and European oil and gas companies are already there." And third, "the activity of OMV is entirely in line with the UN regime of sanctions."

Gusenbauer does not reject the possibility of using force against Iran, but he believes that "there is still a wide range of political options that have yet to be exhausted vis-a-vis Iran." "At the same time," he says, "we should avoid the custom that has developed in recent years, of talking too much and too early" - in other words, "If you wanna shoot, shoot, don't talk." Gusenbauer refused to be impressed by Ahmadinejad's latest bragging: "The claim of Iran's president that he has 3,000 nuclear centrifuges does not accord with the UN report that states that the Iranian nuclear program has been reduced, even if it hasn't been stopped entirely. It is possible that Ahmadinejad's words were for internal consumption. The UN must once again examine the situation on the ground, and if it turns out that the Iranians are not fulfilling the demands of the Security Council, of course the council will have to reexamine the situation."

'Austrian neutrality'

Asked about the "neutral" position of his country in the era of nuclear armament and global dangers, the chancellor explains that "'Austrian neutrality' is a very modern term. It clearly defines the fact that we do not participate in wars, that we don't want the presence of foreign forces in our country, and that we will not be part of a military alliance. And yet we demonstrate solidarity with the EU and the UN, and take responsibility during national and international rescue efforts in the event of natural and other disasters."

In the name of that same solidarity, Austria has been participating for over 30 years in the framework of the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights (UNDOF), and sponsors talks about the future of Kosovo; in the name of that same solidarity, as well, Gusenbauer also met in Israel with the families of the kidnapped soldiers in Lebanon. He refuses to discuss the connections that he intends to use in order to help the families, but promises "to try to help as much as possible."

As someone who is not committed to "neutrality" in the conservative-classical meaning of the word, he does not dismiss the possibility of deploying a European fighting force in territories to be evacuated by Israel in the event that an arrangement is found with the Palestinians. However, he would like to place all his confidence in the regional summit to be held in the United States in November, and mainly in the understandings and agreements on basic principles that he hopes Israel and the Palestinians will reach. Only afterward will it be possible to talk about significant EU involvement in the region, he explains.

Since Gusenbauer considers former chancellor Bruno Kreisky to have been his mentor and model, one might expect him to work energetically to include Hamas in the process he describes: The late chancellor - "a self-hating Jew," according to Golda Meir - opened the doors of the Ballhausplatz (the Chancellery) in Vienna to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and some see Kreisky as one of the leaders who most influenced the transformation of the "pariah terrorist" into a legitimate leader and an interlocutor in the international arena.

But Gusenhauer is angry at this supposition: "Just as we don't accept today the death of children and innocent people at the hands of terrorist organizations, Kreisky always took a very strong stand against any type of terror and killing. He said that there would be peace in the Middle East only when the Palestinians received the status of a sovereign nation with equal rights, and therefore he always supported political dialogue with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. But it would be a totally incorrect interpretation of the Kreisky legacy to claim that he had sympathy for killing or for terrorist organizations, which he despised.

"We must clearly define which forces want change and reconciliation, and to strengthen them," he adds. "We have to demonstrate optimism regarding the talks between Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert and [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas, and to focus our support on this channel. An agreement reached by the two leaders would be the best response to the missiles being launched from Gaza that are threatening the lives of Israelis."