Austrian President Confirms: We Asked Israel to Reconsider Boycott on Foreign Minister

Haaretz revealed that Austria's president had requested his Israeli counterpart consider removing the boycott from the far-right Freedom Party. Karin Kneissl, the foreign minister, represents the party but is not herself a member

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen greet Rabbi Arthur Schneier in Vienna, November 9, 2018.
AFP

PARIS - Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen confirmed Wednesday that he asked President Reuven Rivlin to consider normalizing relations with Austria's far-right Freedom Party, which Israel is boycotting.

Haaretz revealed on Sunday that on October 12, Van der Bellen met Rivlin at the Vienna airport on Rivlin's way back from a state visit to Denmark, and asked him whether Israel would reconsider its boycott of the Freedom Party’s cabinet members.

A statement sent to Haaretz on Sunday from the Austrian president said that at the airport meeting, he had specifically requested that Rivlin normalize relations with the Austrian foreign minister.

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Karin Kneissl, the foreign minister, represents the Freedom Party but is not herself a party member. She is an expert on the Middle East who studied for a while at the Hebrew University, and is also boycotted by Israel, not only because she represents the Freedom Party but because she compared Zionism and Nazism in a book she wrote. She has also criticized the Israeli army and Netanyahu.

Haartz reported that Rivlin refused Van der Bellen's request, telling his counterpart at length why he objects to normalization of relations with those ministers, given the party’s anti-Semitic roots and the current accusations by Jewish leaders in Austria that the party is stoking anti-Semitism.

Van der Bellen further stated that the "Federal President stressed that the further improvement of relations with Israel was an important concern for him" and that "the decision by the Israeli government regarding FPÖ government members has to be respected." He also said that "he was pleased that good friendly relations now existed at the level of the Presidents and between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Federal Chancellor."

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been courting the Jewish community in an effort to remove the Israeli-Jewish boycott of his cabinet members.

Kurz formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. Israel's government has been avoiding contact with ministers of the Freedom Party, which was founded by Nazi activists after the war.

Since WWII, the Freedom Party has been the extreme right-wing marker of Austria’s political system, with countless anti-Semitic incidents and cases of Holocaust denial attributed to it. Some party supporters greet their leader with a Nazi salute, with party rallies featuring Nazi concepts and symbols.

Israel’s ties with Austria were complicated from the start, with the Herut Party (precursor of Likud) newspaper calling in 1949 to avoid recognizing Austria. There were some bumpy milestones in this relationship during the tenures of chancellors Bruno Kreisky, Kurt Waldheim and Jorg Haider. Thus, in the 1970s, Golda Meir tried to no avail to reach an understanding with Kreisky, who was a bitter critic of Zionism. Attempts at dialogue were replaced by boycotts and a lowering of the level of diplomatic relations in the 1980s, when it was revealed that Kurt Waldheim had served in the Wehrmacht.

In February 2000 there was a significant blow-up when the conservative Austrian People’s Party under Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel joined the Freedom Party, headed by Haider. This was the first time that the party became a legitimate coalition partner. Israel withdrew its ambassador and demoted its level of relations, suspending all ties with the Austrian government. Austria kept its ambassador to Israel in place. Israel’s boycott was only lifted three and a half years later, when Haider left the party.

When Kurz won in December 2017 and added Haider’s replacement Heinz-Christian Strache to his cabinet as vice-chancellor, Netanyahu announced that Israel would boycott extreme right-wing ministers in Austria, and would limit its ties to purely professional matters with their offices.

Last June Kurz visited Israel. He went to the Western Wall on a private visit and met Netanyahu again, promising that his country would resolutely combat any form of anti-Semitism in Europe. He added that Austria wants to support Israel and its security needs.

However, the Jewish community in Austria was roiled again when the FPO promoted a law, eventually foiled, that would limit kosher slaughter.