Around a decade ago, the Israeli government decided to have nothing to do with Geert Wilders. It wasn't something that was officially announced or even had much discernible effect at the time, but as the firebrand Dutch politician was making waves as the leader of the new nationalist Party for Freedom, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem made the recommendation not to engage with him at a high or public level.
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It wasn't a simple decision. Wilders is vocally pro-Israel and unlike other far-right politicians in the West, it wasn't a position that he took for expedient reasons. The 53 year-old volunteered on a kibbutz as a young man and has visited Israel dozens of times over the years. Neither did Wilders or his party have any uncomfortable historical baggage of once being fascist or Nazi-supporting. At the time, however, it was felt that the strident anti-Muslim views, which were Wilders’ trademark, made him an embarrassing ally and then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sided with the recommendation of her professional diplomats. While Wilders was not officially classified "persona non grata," for a while he was not formally received by government ministers and high-ranking officials.
But in 2009, when Avigdor Lieberman, who had known Wilders for years, became foreign minister, the policy had changed. Suddenly, the blond rabble-rouser, who is ostracized by all mainstream politicians in Europe and in 2009 was temporarily banned from even visiting Britain (a ban which was overturned by the courts), was accepted in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and accorded the status of a major politician. But back then Wilders was a trailblazer – the first major European politician to combine virulently anti-Muslim propaganda along with muscular pro-Israeli policies.
The changing policy toward Wilders is a reflection of how difficult it can be for Israel to calibrate its ties with far-right politicians. If Wilders had found himself as the leader of the largest party in the Dutch parliament after Wednesday's elections – as some polls indicated – it could have changed the way Israel deals with the European far-right, and even more so if Wilders had emerged as the new prime minister.
There are a few unwritten rules of engagement. One is that parties with historical baggage have to fully atone for their past. The prime example of a prominent far-right politician in Europe doing so successfully is Gianfranco Fini, the former Italian foreign minister who began his political career as a proud heir of Benito Mussolini’s ideals. In the mid-90s however, he renounced Neo-fascism and reformed his party, jettisoning most of the far-right hold outs. A major part of Fini's political rehabilitation was building a relationship with the Jewish community in Italy. And that is the second unwritten rule – Israel does not overstep the local Jewish leadership and engage with leaders who are treated as beyond the pale by the community.
For example, no matter how many times French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen insists that her party is not the National Front of her anti-Semitic father, Jean Marie, as long as the representative council of French Jewry, CRIF, still refuses to legitimize her party, Israel will have no official dealings with them either. In some cases, movements that present themselves as pro-Israeli are shut out as well. The anti-Muslim street-protesting English Defence League – which waves Israeli flags at its events in the hope of angering Muslims – has been classified by British Jewry’s Community Security Trust as a hate group because of its incitement against Muslims, and therefore the Jewish organizations and Israeli officials have nothing to do with them.
But as the wave of right-wing nationalism grows in Europe, the boundaries seem to be moving. The Israeli government has warm relations with the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government in Hungary despite the anti-Semites within these parties’ ranks, and despite the systematic way in which both governments have downplayed the collaboration of local populations with the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. Israel justifies the close ties by the fact that Hungary and Poland support it within the European Union and that, officially, the local authorities and security forces protect the Jewish communities from any real anti-Semitic violence. But Israel is playing with fire. The wave of xenophobia in Europe may not yet be targeting Jews, but history has shown that it is always but a matter of time.
In 2000, when the Georg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party joined the coalition government in Austria, Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna for nearly five years. Last December, when the party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, seemed on the brink of winning the country’s presidential elections, Israeli diplomats speculated whether the current Netanyahu government would go so far. The Freedom Party has tried in recent years to improve its ties with Israel as a way of trying to detoxify its image, but when party leader Heinz-Christian Strache visited Israel last year he was not received by any minister. Had Hofer gone on to win the presidential election, would the boycott of the Freedom Party have continued? And if in May Marine Le Pen defies expectations and polls by winning the elections and become France’s new president, what then?
The taboo of course has already been broken by the warm ties between representatives of the Israeli government and members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s inner-circle, like his chief strategist Steve Bannon, who at the very least has openly flirted with anti-Semitism. And compared to them, Wilders hardly seems radical.