Israel to Debate Official Response to Party With Nazi Past in Austria's New Government

When the Freedom Party, which has Nazi roots, joined Austria's ruling coalition in 2000, Israel delivered a strong response. But the leadership isn't quick to issue condemnations this time around

Future Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (L) and incoming Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party leave a press conference in Vienna, December 16, 2017.
ALEX HALADA/AFP

The Israeli Foreign Ministry will hold a special policy discussion Monday on the country’s response to the formation of an extreme right-wing government coalition in Austria.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, which has Nazi and anti-Semitic roots, is expected to be named vice chancellor in the government. The swearing-in ceremony is scheduled for Monday.

The formation of the new government follows two months of coalition contacts with the incoming chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who heads the center-right People’s Party. Kurz’s party, also known by its German initials, ÖVP, received a plurality in the election while the Freedom Party came in third.

When the Freedom Party joined Austria’s coalition government in 2000, Israel issued a strong response, recalling its ambassador from Vienna and downgrading its relations with the country. This time, however, prospects for such a response are expected to be slim, in part due to a degree of overlap in the policy positions espoused by Strache and those Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government when it comes to issues such as radical Islam and immigration. At this point, neither the Foreign Ministry nor Netanyahu – who is also the foreign minister – have made any comment.

Nor has President Reuven Rivlin, who said on Holocaust Remembrance Day last year: “Sometimes I am shocked by what looks like the erosion of our national respect, by the peculiar [phenomenon involving] linking up with the voices of falsehood among the extreme right in parts of Europe.” He added, “Political leaders and national leaders who support racist, neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic views will not be and cannot be welcome guests here in Israel.”

Strache succeeded Jorg Haider in heading the Freedom Party, which its critics claim has still not disassociated itself from its Nazi and anti-Semitic roots. In recent years, howevever, Strache has attempted to present himself as a supporter of Israel. Since, according to local media reports, Strache will not be appointed Austria’s foreign minister, Israel is apparently being spared the headache that it would have faced if he had visited Israel in this capacity. Israel will not have direct public contacts with him.

Strache has managed to develop friendly relations on Israel’s right wing in recent years, in part as a result of his promise to transfer Austria’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and his support for construction in West Bank Jewish settlements. 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, on the recommendation of the Foreign Ministry, former President Shimon Peres refused to meet with him.

Lawmaker Yehudah Glick and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely are among the Israelis who have demonstrated support for normalizing ties with Strache in the past, either by their statements or their actions. Others include former cabinet member and senior Mossad spy agency official Rafi Eitan and former lawmaker Michael Kleiner. As deputy minister, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara sparked anger when he met with Strache in Vienna in 2010. Among Israelis who have met with the Austrian politician are former President Moshe Katsav, lawmaker Avi Dichter and others whose identities have not been disclosed.

Despite Strache’s efforts to obtain a seal of approval in Israel, his critics claim that his party has not cleansed itself of its origins, and evidence of this has occasionally become public. Some of the Freedom Party’s supporters greet its leaders with a Nazi salute. Strache himself had posted an anti-Semitic political cartoon on Facebook and also used a campaign poster with a slogan with Nazi overtones in the past.