Anti-Semitism, Threats and Leaks: Meet the Israeli Political Consultants Shaking Up the Austrian Election

Tal Silberstein and his team, whose previous clients include Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert, waged a smear campaign against the front runner

Austria's Social Democrats candidate Christian Kern in Vienna, Austria, October 14, 2017.
Austria's Social Democrats candidate Christian Kern in Vienna, Austria, October 14, 2017. DOMINIC EBENBICHLER/REUTERS

Name-calling, anti-Semitism, racism, threats, leaks and going underground — the Austrian election will be remembered not just for the young age of the leading candidate for chancellor but also for the Israeli involvement that rattled the entire political system.

If Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz is elected Austria’s chancellor on Sunday, he will become the youngest head of state in the West at 31. Kurz leads the center-right New People’s Party (formerly the Austrian People’s Party), and is expected to take 33 percent of the vote and become the largest party in parliament.

>> Sebastian Kurz, an anti-immigration millennial, on track to become Austria's chancellor

Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democratic Party, expected to come in third after the far-right Freedom Party, hired Israeli political strategist Tal Silberstein to wage a smear campaign against Kurz. Silberstein's clients have included prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.

Silberstein’s team included Moshe Klughaft, Sefi Shaked and Dahlia Scheindlin, as well as George Birnbaum, an American who worked, together with the late Arthur Finkelstein, for Avigdor Lieberman.

Silberstein was fired from the campaign after his arrest in August in connection with an investigation of corruption allegations against Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz.

Silberstein’s campaign included two Facebook pages that made fun of Kurz, claiming he was bankrolled by a Hungarian-born Jewish financier and philanthropist.

The campaign was slammed in the Austrian media. Last week Kurz declared Austria didn’t need “Silbersteins” meddling in the election.

Austrian media outlets received leaks from the Israeli-led campaign, including an email in which Scheindlin asked if right-wing Austrian voters support a “tough” stance against immigration and view the left as “weak.” She also suggested testing attributes associated with Kurz and Kern with voters, listing Kurz' negatives as inexperience, arrogance and being a “one-man-show.” Positive aspects included his credibility, tough stance on immigration and being a “new face.”

In Kern’s plus column Scheindlin listed reliability, caring, fitness to be chancellor and commitment to social issues. His minus column included softness on refugees and lack of a track record.

A young translator, identified only as Anna Y. in Austrian media reports, recently went underground, saying she felt threatened, after being identified as a possible source of the leaks. She had worked in Silberstein’s Austrian office and was fired after him. According to Austrian media reports, her partner is the son of a cabinet minister from Kurz’s party. Several groups have offered her large sums of money in exchange for more leaks.

Several Austrian journalists recently went to the police, claiming they are being followed by individuals connected to the Israeli team in a manner resembling espionage agencies.