Peres Declines Meeting With Far-right Austrian Politician, Invited to Israel by Likud

The Foreign Ministry had recommended the former president skip the meeting with Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Austrian Freedom Party and one-time disciple of Jörg Haider.

Austria's Freedom Party head, Heinz-Christian Strache, visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, on April 12, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

At the recommendation of Israel's Foreign Ministry, former President Shimon Peres will not be meeting Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. Strache was invited to Israel by senior Likud officials.

At the end of March, Peres’ bureau received a request to meet Strache during his visit to Israel. Peres’ political adviser, Nadav Tamir, who is familiar with the anti-Semitic nature of his party and its negative attitude toward Israel, decided to seek advice about such a meeting from senior officials at the Foreign Ministry.

A senior member of Peres’ bureau said that ministry’s reply was sharply negative, and it clarified the government stance that the Freedom Party – which has neo-Nazi members – is an extreme right-wing, racist and anti-Semitic party with which Israel has no ties. Indeed, the official government policy for years has been to ban any meetings between Israeli government officials and members of the party.

The ministry suggested that Strache, who arrived on Monday, should not receive any form of legitimization by being allowed to meet with the former president.

“The Foreign Ministry," said a source in Peres' bureau, "supported our position that this person is unworthy of meeting Peres and we informed them [Strache's office] of our refusal to meet.”

For its part, the Freedom Party issued a statement stating that Strache was coming to Israel at the invitation of the Likud “for closed consultations with senior Likud officials.”

On Tuesday, Strache and his entourage of senior officials from his party visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial institution in Jerusalem; he had visited the site previously as part of an attempt to show that his party is not anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi.

In January, Channel 1’s Yair Weinreb reported that an invitation had been issued to Strache by Eli Hazan, head of the Likud’s department for foreign diplomacy and external ties, as well as by Michael Kleiner, president of Likud tribunal. Kleiner has connections to Strache and the Freedom Party, and has been trying for years to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, senior cabinet members and the Foreign Ministry to change their attitude to them and to lift the ban forbidding any association with them.

Two years ago, when Avigdor Lieberman was foreign minister, two meetings were held between his ministry's director general, Nissim Ben-Shitrit, and Freedom Party officials, as part of an examination of the possibility of changing that policy. Heavy pressure continued to be exerted by right-wing figures, especially within Likud, and the matter had still been an issue in the early days of the present government, in which Netanyahu is also foreign minister. However, following media coverage and intense opposition from the professional echelons at the Foreign Ministry, the topic was in essence taken off the agenda.

Strache is the successor – and was for a time a close disciple – of the late, longtime leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Jörg Haider, who was known for his anti-Semitic positions and support of the Nazis. When the party joined the coalition in the Austrian parliament in 2000, Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna in protest, and the crisis between the two countries continued until 2003. In recent years there has been pressure from right wing elements in Israel, some of it from settler leaders, aimed at allowing contacts with Strache and his party. The main reason for supporting ties with him, it seems, is his anti-Muslim positions and support of construction in West Bank settlements.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon said the Israeli government did not invite the Austrian Freedom Party leader, nor does it have any connection to his visit.