Leader of Far-right Austrian Party With Nazi Roots to Be Next Vice-chancellor

Heinz-Christian Strache, whose extreme right-wing party has been accused of neo-Nazi leanings, is expected to take office next week as part coalition talks

Heinz-Christian Strache (R) and Foreign Minister and leader of the Austrian People's Party Sebastian Kurz (L) after forming a new coalition government in Vienna, December 15, 2017.
REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, which is known for its anti-Semitic and Nazi roots, is expected to be nominated next week to the position of vice-chancellor.

Following two months of contacts in the coalition between Sebastian Kurz, head of the center-right party ÖVP which got the majority of the votes in the parliament elections, and Strache, whose party reached the third spot in the elections, the two agreed Friday on the establishment of a coalition.

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They are expected to present the upcoming government to Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Saturday, and then present the coalition agreement to the public. Next week, the new government will be sworn in with Kurtz at its helm.

The 31-year-old Kurz will be the youngest politician to ever be named chancellor in the history of Austria, and the youngest leader in the West. He reiterated on Friday the goals of the new government he will head, stating that it will fight the wave of illegal immigration and bolster security in Austria. He also promised to change the political culture in the country. Kurz is slated to serve in his role for five years from the moment his new government is sworn in.

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Chairman of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache attends his party's final election campaign rally in Vienna, Austria, October 13, 2017.
MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS

Strache has stated in the past that he would support moving the Austrian Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – but this statement currently bears no practical meaning.

The politician is a successor of Jorg Haider and his party has Nazi and anti-Semitic roots. Critics of the Freedom Party claim that it has not yet relieved itself from these roots, while Strache has been trying to present himself as pro-Israel in recent years.

The last time Strache's party joined the Austrian government in 2000, Israel was quick to react aggressively: it returned its ambassador from Austria and lowered the level of relations between the two countries.

This time, most assessments suggest that the chances Israel will act in the same way are slim. This comes on the backdrop of an ideological partnership between Strache's stances and those of the Netanyahu government in relation to joint enemies and their fights against radical Islam and the immigration wave.

Austria's Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache (left), with Jörg Haider on September 28, 2008.
Reuters

Austrian media reports that Strache will not be nominated as foreign minister, saving Israel from the diplomatic headache of addressing the issue of how he should be treated on official visits and enabling the Jewish state to accept his role as vice chancellor since it will not have to come into direct and public contact with him.

Strache has succeeded in recent years to gain some strong friends among the right-wing settlers' sector in Israel, a lot due to his promise to move the Austrian embassy to Jerusalem and thanks to his support of settlement construction. He has visited Israel at least three times over the past years, and has also met with officials in the Likud party and toured Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem.

Some Israeli officials have expressed in the past their support of normalizing relations with him, including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, MK Yehuda Glick (Likud), minister and former senior Mossad member Rafi Eitan and former MK Michael Kleiner.

Minister Ayoub Kara inspired outrage when he met with Strache during his visit to Vienna in 2010, when he was a deputy minister. Among the officials to have previously met with Strache are former president Moshe Katsav and ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter.

However, despite his attempts to get Israel's seal of approval, Strache's critics claim that his party is still not free of anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi foundations which come into play in internal meetings and away from the watchful eye of the media.

From time to time, such elements of the Freedom Party reveal themselves to the public and examples for that are ample. Some of the party's supporters tend to greet their leader with a Nazi salute, and Strache himself previously posted an anti-Semitic caricature on his Facebook page. He is also known to have used a Nazi slogan in a former elections poster.