The Austrian Embrace: How Kurz's Far-right Government Is Wooing Israel to End Boycott of Freedom Party

Last month the Austrian president appealed to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to lift the boycott of the party that is tainted with anti-Semitic roots

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in Jerusalem, June 2018.
Haim Tzach/ GPO

With his swept-back hair and blue eyes, Austria’s young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was featured on the cover of Newsweek last week, with the magazine calling him a rising star in the firmament of global politics.

The extensive profile described the conservative leader as an ambitious activist who has garnered impressive support within his country, mainly among young people.

However, a stain hovers over this optimistic portrayal, in the form of his rhetorical flirtation with his country’s dark past and his tight alliance with the extreme right-wing Freedom Party and the Israeli-Jewish boycott of its cabinet members. The continuing boycott has become a persistent blemish on the shining image of the rising star, and it appears that he’s determined to remove it.

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Over the last two weeks, in the shadow of events commemorating the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Chancellor made some gestures to the Jewish community.

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen greet Rabbi Arthur Schneier in Vienna, November 9, 2018.
AFP

The first is the hosting in 10 days of a large international conference in Vienna, called “Europe beyond anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism – securing Jewish life in Europe.” 

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to attend. If he does so, this will be the first visit by an Israeli prime minister since 1997 when Netanyahu also visited the country. Before that, only Golda Meir and Presidents Moshe Katzav and Shimon Peres had gone to Austria on official visits.

A few days before that, the chancellor announced that his government would finance the erection of a monument commemorating 66,000 Austrian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Kurz approved the granting of citizenship to descendants of these victims.

Making an exception, Austria will allow children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims to hold dual citizenship. In an interview he gave to the Jewish Chronicle, Kurz said that Austria wanted to give them a chance to become citizens if they wished to do so, but in the same interview he again defended his decision to form an alliance with the Freedom Party.

Protesters carry posters reading "Don't let Nazis rule" during a rally against Minister Herbert Kickl of the Freedom Party in Vienna, November 7, 2018.
REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Last month President Reuven Rivlin was the focus of Austrian pressure to obtain Israel’s stamp of kashrut, while the Freedom Party was conducting a stormy campaign to force Jews to obtain permits in order to buy kosher meat. On his way back from a state visit to Denmark, the president stopped in Austria and met his counterpart President Alexander Van der Bellen at the airport.

An official statement they later released said that they had talked about the strong relations between the two countries and that Rivlin had noted his appreciation for the warm relations between Van der Bellen and the local Jewish community. It was reported that the Austrian president said at their meeting that Austria bears joint responsibility for the terrible crimes which led to the flight of Austria’s Jews.

However, there was another part of their conversation which has not yet been reported. Haaretz has learned that Rivlin was surprised when Van der Bellen wondered whether Israel would reconsider its boycott of the Freedom Party’s cabinet members. Rivlin was not expecting such a direct appeal, which showed that the Austrians were well acquainted with diverse political positions in Israel, having designated Rivlin as a major opposition figure.

In response, Rivlin told his counterpart at length why he objects to normalization of relations with those ministers, given the party’s anti-Semitic roots and the current accusations by Jewish leaders in Austria that the party is stoking anti-Semitism.

Sources at the president’s bureau confirmed that the topic was one of several that had been raised by the Austrian president, and that in response Rivlin had repeated his consistent stance, clarifying that he was not taking a position on the political considerations that guide any government in forming a coalition.

“The president clarified the difficulties inherent in Israel’s ties with representatives of parties that hold neo-Fascist ideas, while recalling that anti-Semitism did not begin with the Nazis.” He added that one cannot support Israel while holding anti-Semitic positions, said these sources. Thus, despite efforts to persuade him, Rivlin still objects strenuously to lifting the boycott. Austrians will not be absolved by him. On the other hand, Rivlin is not in charge of Israel’s foreign policy, and winds blowing from the person who is, Benjamin Netanyahu, are less resolute.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen at ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, in Vienna.
REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

A history of boycotts

The history of the Freedom Party (FPO) is intertwined with Austria’s complex attitude, which persists to this day, to its role in World War II. While Germany, due to international circumstances, accepted its past, Austria did not touch the wounds associated with the dark past of its leaders during the Nazi period until the late 1980s. As in Poland, the perception remains that Austria, other than being Hitler’s birthplace, was a victim of his rule. In the absence of a deep-reaching acceptance of responsibility, Austria became fertile ground for neo-Nazi activity after the war.

The Freedom Party, Kurz’s coalition partner, was founded by Nazi activists after the war. Since then it has been the extreme right-wing marker of Austria’s political system, with countless anti-Semitic incidents and cases of Holocaust denial attributed to it. Some party supporters greet their leader with a Nazi salute, with party rallies featuring Nazi concepts and symbols.

Israel’s ties with Austria were complicated from the start, with the Herut Party (precursor of Likud) newspaper calling in 1949 to avoid recognizing Austria. There were some bumpy milestones in this relationship during the tenures of chancellors Bruno Kreisky, Kurt Waldheim and Jorg Haider. Thus, in the 1970s, Golda Meir tried to no avail to reach an understanding with Kreisky, who was a bitter critic of Zionism. Attempts at dialogue were replaced by boycotts and a lowering of the level of diplomatic relations in the 1980s, when it was revealed that Kurt Waldheim had served in the Wehrmacht.

Members of the Austrian Jewish community attend a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

In February 2000 there was a significant blow-up when the conservative Austrian People’s Party under Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel joined the Freedom Party, headed by Haider. This was the first time that the party became a legitimate coalition partner. Israel withdrew its ambassador and demoted its level of relations, suspending all ties with the Austrian government. Austria kept its ambassador to Israel in place. Israel’s boycott was only lifted three and a half years later, when Haider left the party.

The party gained strength again in 2008, this time under Haider’s replacement Heinz-Christian Strache. In 2010, the Austrian Jewish community was furious when Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara met Strache in Vienna, heaping praises on him. The community’s leader wrote a sharp letter to Netanyahu, describing the event as a stab in the back of Austrian Jews. Strache tried to improve his image by forging ties with Israel’s right wing.

Among other things, he expressed support for expanding settlements and for transferring Austria’s embassy to Jerusalem. He met Likud members and visited Yad Vashem. But incidents with an anti-Semitic flavor continued. For example, in 2012 Strache held a ball for party members suspected of neo-Nazi activity. Thousands of Jews protested outside the building and Strache declared that attempts to disrupt the ball were similar to Kristallnacht. In the same year, Strache posted a cartoon reminiscent of Nazi depictions of Jews, on his Facebook page.

Israel’s attitude towards Strache became critical during the 2017 election campaign in Austria. The young and promising foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, planned to join Strache in forming a conservative right-wing government. Kurz was considered a friend of the Jewish community and an ardent supporter of Israel. However, his story is also not free of blemishes. Thus, in a campaign speech he used an anti-Semitic sounding allusion to “the Silbersteins,” referring to a campaign against him led by Israeli political consultant Tal Silberstein.

When Kurz won in December 2017 and added Strache to his cabinet as vice-chancellor, Israel took its time in responding. In the end, despite pressure by right-wing members such as Likud MK Yehuda Glick, who had developed tight links with Strache, Netanyahu announced that Israel would boycott extreme right-wing ministers in Austria, and would limit its ties to purely professional matters with their offices.

The status of the embassy remained as it was, and Netanyahu stressed that he would maintain direct links with the elected chancellor. Strache expressed optimism, stating that the situation was different than the steps taken by Israel in 2000. Kurz said he respected Israel’s decision and that he was optimistic with regard to the future. “Our task will be to do good work at home and persuade abroad. We’ll dispel all concerns” he said.

Since then Kurz is indeed trying to dispel concerns. He’s met Netanyahu three times since his election. The first time was last February at a conference on international security in Munich. Netanyahu said at the time that Kurz had updated him with regard to steps Austria was taking against anti-Semitism and in support of Israel. He promised to change the way Austria votes at the United Nations. In March, Netanyahu praised Kurz’s speech against anti-Semitism. However, that same month Austria had to return home an employee at its embassy in Israel who was photographed wearing a shirt with Nazi emblems.

Last June Kurz visited Israel. He went to the Western Wall on a private visit and met Netanyahu again, promising that his country would resolutely combat any form of anti-Semitism in Europe. He added that Austria wants to support Israel and its security needs.

However, the Jewish community in Austria was roiled again when the FPO promoted a law that would limit kosher slaughter. The plan, which was foiled, called for registering Jews wanting to buy kosher meat in a special database. The third meeting of the two leaders was last September after the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

The Jewish community in Austria, which consists of diverse streams, is closely monitoring anti-Semitic incidents. Since the rise of the current government it has documented 40 incidents associated with the Freedom Party. They include patently anti-Semitic incidents which were not followed by any action on the part of the party.

This week, in the shadow of the 80th Kristallnacht anniversary, extreme right-wing groups which identify with the party desecrated Holocaust monuments by placing garbage bins at these sites. The community expects Israel to back them in their struggle. Many Jews support Kurz himself, but insist that the FPO must undergo full repentance in order to obtain legitimacy from Israel and the Jewish community.

The Austrian government’s spokesman, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, told Haaretz this week that relations between Kurz and Netanyahu are “personally and professionally close,” and that the rebuilding of ties between the countries is an important part of the government’s plan, which is based on a commitment to the existence and security of Israel as a Jewish state. He emphasized that this decision includes the FPO. He said that the chancellor and his deputy have a great understanding of Israel’s concerns in these matters, and are intent on rebuilding relations based on trust.

Jerusalem in exchange for Kneissl

One of these confidence-building steps could be, according to diplomatic sources, a declaration on the status of Jerusalem. Strache has expressed support for moving the embassy but Kurz has clarified that Austria would not be the first European Union member to do so. He said that Austria abides by the EU position by which the future of Jerusalem would be determined in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The same sources noted that when Austria ceases to be president of the EU at the end of this year, the situation could change and enable some measures, such as moving tourist, culture and commercial affairs of the Austrian embassy to Jerusalem, as was done by the Czech Republic.

Israel in turn would normalize its relations with Austria’s foreign minister, who represents the party but who is not herself a party member. Karin Kneissl, an expert on the Middle East who studied for a while at the Hebrew University, is also boycotted by Israel, not only because she represents the FPO but because she compared Zionism and Nazism in a book she wrote. She also criticized the Israel Defense Forces and Netanyahu. Since she is not a party member and plays a key role in the two countries’ relations, her background may serve in forging a compromise. Diplomatic sources confirmed this to Haaretz.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in Jerusalem, June 2018.
Haim Zach / GPO

The Jewish community is split with regard to such a scenario, with reservations about distinguishing her from the party, since she has never condemned any of the incidents associated with the party during the time she has served in its name. In the meantime Kneissl is testing the water. She’s been trying to “snatch” random hallway meetings with senior Israeli officials and depict these as a lifting of the boycott.

During a European conference she met Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant and was photographed talking to him. Galant was surprised by all the questions he received later since he hadn’t recognized her. He said she’d presented herself as a former student at the Hebrew University and shook his hand. They didn’t exchange any further words, he said. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel also bumped into her and off the cuff invited her to Israel. The foreign ministry had to do some fancy footwork to cancel that invitation.

Sources in Israel say that one consideration of this issue is the attitude of the rest of the world to the Kurz government. The world was united against the Haider government, with 14 EU countries demoting the level of their diplomatic relations. The return of the Israeli ambassador was part of an international campaign.

Europe has now changed. No steps have been taken against Strache. Israel’s role as the torchbearer in this matter has become more complicated. Some question whether leaving relations with the FPO to marginal right-wing groups in Israel might hurt the chances of normalization leading to moderation. They wonder whether talking isn’t preferable to boycotting.

In any case, Netanyahu’s upcoming visit will not include meetings with FPO ministers or with Kneissl. But his associates do not deny the possibility that the boycott may be lifted soon. If Kneissl comes on an official visit, the dilemma will again land on Rivlin’s doorstep, since he will have to host her.

Austria's Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl dances with Russia's President Vladimir Putin at her wedding in Austria, August 18, 2018.
Roland Schlager/Pool via Reuters