Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also holds the foreign affairs portfolio, said Monday that Israel will boycott Austria's far-right ministers, instructing Israeli ministers to work only with lower-ranking officials.
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Seeking to cool ties with the Austrian government were officials at the Foreign Ministry, while officials at the Prime Minister's Office were inclined to accept statements by the far-right Freedom Party that it has broken with its anti-Semitic roots, political sources said.
The new Austrian government took office Monday following two months of negotiations between Sebastian Kurz, the new chancellor and head of the center-right People’s Party, and Heinz-Christian Strache, whose Freedom Party came in third in the October election after the People’s Party and Social Democrats.
When Strache’s party joined a coalition government in 2000, Israel recalled its ambassador and downgraded relations. But this time the response had been slow.
A statement released Monday at the close of discussions between the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister's Office said that “Israel will conduct working relations with civil servants in the ministries now led by Freedom Party ministers .... Israel seeks to stress its responsibility to fight anti-Semitism and to commemorate the memory of the Holocaust.”
The statement added that Netanyahu “has a direct line of communication with the Austrian chancellor-elect,” and that he has instructed Yuval Rotem, director general of the Foreign Ministry, to craft an official stance on how Israel will conduct its relationship with the new Austrian government.
In an interview wtih Austria's ORF television on Monday evening, Strache was asked what he thought about Israel's decision to reexamine its position on its relations with the Austrian government in light of Strache's Freedom Party's presence in the new government. He replied that "the situation today is different than when Israel took steps in 2000, recalling its ambassador and halting contacts between the governments."
Strache made it clear in his response that he has been working to build ties with Israel, adding that he intends to fight anti-Semitism in Austria and elsewhere in Europe to demonstrate the seriousness of his intentions.
For his part, Kurz, the new Austrian chancellor, also addressed relations with Israel. Calling the Israeli prime minister by his nickname, he said: "Bibi Netanyahu is a friend whom we work well with." With regard to Israel's reexamination of its ties with Austria, Kurz said: "We respect Israel's decision, but are optimistic nevertheless," referring to prospects for good relations between the two governments.
Strache is the successor of the Freedom Party’s longtime leader Jörg Haider, who died in a car accident in 2008. The party’s critics say it has still not disassociated itself from its Nazi and anti-Semitic roots. Some if its supporters greet its leaders with a Nazi salute, and Strache once posted an anti-Semitic political cartoon on Facebook and adorned a campaign poster with a slogan with Nazi overtones.
But in recent years, Strache has tried to portray himself as a friend of Israel. He has promised to move Austria’s embassy to Jerusalem and has supported Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank.
He has visited Israel at least three times in recent years, meeting with senior members of Netanyahu’s Likud party and touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum. But on his most recent visit last year, former President Shimon Peres refused to meet with him, on the recommendation of the Foreign Ministry.