Israeli Foreign Ministry: Austrian Envoy Shouldn’t Attend Knesset Session on Boycott of Far-right Party

Critics of the Freedom Party claim it has not rid itself of its Nazi past; ministry says reason for the objection is the sensitive relations between Israel and Austria

Protesters hold signs reading 'Don't let Nazis govern' during a demonstration against the Freedom Party's annual Academics' Ball in Vienna, Austria, January 26, 2018.
\ HEINZ-PETER BADER/ REUTERS

The Foreign Ministry has objected to the participation of Martin Weiss, Austria’s ambassador to Israel, in a special session of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday on the subject of Israel’s boycott of Austria’s Freedom Party. The party has Nazi roots but claims that it has shaken off its Nazi past.

Despite the Foreign Ministry’s objection, Weiss said that he will be present at Monday’s session.

Lawmakers Ksenia Svetlova of the Zionist Union and Yehudah Glick of the Likud were informed by the committee’s staff that Foreign Ministry officials believe it would not be appropriate to invite the ambassador, so that the sensitive relations between Israel and Austria would not be harmed in the event that the committee debate becomes heated.

“After clarification with the most senior levels at the Foreign Ministry, it was decided that it would not be correct to officially invite the Austrian ambassador on behalf of the committee. It could create more damage than benefit,” the committee informed Svetlova’s office.

Glick responded to the Foreign Ministry’s stance, which was first reported by Channel 10, with the following tweet: “A disgrace, the Foreign Ministry is refusing to approve the Austrian ambassador’s participating in a session at the Knesset on the issue of Israel’s relations with Austria. Silencing people. And then let them talk about the boycott against Israel in the world. I call on the committee chairman to ignore this insolent order.”

On Sunday evening Weiss posted on Twitter that he “gladly accepts the invitation” to attend the session, which he said was extended to him by Zionist Union lawmaker Amir Peretz as chairman of what the ambassador described as the “Austrian-Israeli friendship group.”

The chairman of the committee, Likud lawmaker Avi Dichter, issued a statement noting that the session had been scheduled following a request by Knesset members and was to be an open meeting. “Anyone authorized to enter the Knesset building by the Knesset’s sergeant-at-arms can come into this session,” he said. “The fact that the Foreign Ministry does not wish to invite the Austrian ambassador to this session on its behalf is not meant to prevent any other Knesset member who decides to invite him to do so [and does not] prevent him from entering the session even if he was not invited.”

In December, the Freedom Party joined the new Austrian government coalition and its leader Heinz-Christian Strache was appointed deputy chancellor. Other party members took on the roles of defense and interior ministers. Critics of the far-right party claim that it has never gotten away from its anti-Semitic and Nazi roots, and some of the party’s supporters greet Strache with the Nazi salute.

In the past, Strache himself posted an anti-Semitic cartoon on his Facebook page, and made use of a slogan with Nazi concepts on his campaign poster. Nevertheless, he has been attempting to present himself as a supporter of Israel in recent years. He has expressed support for moving the Austrian Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as well as for Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.

Svetlova who opposes Israeli contact with the Freedom Party, said that “If such a party wants to get close to Israel, there is an orderly way for it [to happen]. It must totally disassociate itself from the dark past.”

After the Freedom Party entered the Austrian coalition government headed by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would not have contact with Austrian cabinet minister affiliated with the party and would instead maintain working contact with those ministries at the professional staff level alone.

The president of the Austrian Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, expressed concern over the party’s membership in the coalition. “It's not normal that a populist far-right party, whose officials have difficulty distancing themselves from Nazism and who utter statements against other cultures and religions, should be part of the government,” Deutsch said at the time.

In March, Netanyahu commended Kurz for promising to fight against anti-Semitism. “We see great importance in his intention to advance several cabinet decisions regarding education and commemorating the Holocaust,” said the prime minister. In a speech marking the 80th anniversary of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, Kurz also expressed regret that decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism still existed in his country.