Political consultant Tal Silberstein is at the center of a scandal that has roiled Austrian politics ahead of the country’s October 15 general election, with the Israeli blamed for unleashing a negative campaign rarely seen in the Alpine country’s politics.
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Silberstein has been accused by the Austrian media of conducting a smear campaign based on “anti-Semitic and xenophobic” tropes against Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, the center-right Austrian People’s Party candidate for chancellor.
For several months Silberstein was an adviser to the Social Democratic Party, headed by Chancellor Christian Kern. A few days ago, media outlets including the investigative magazine Profil and the daily Die Presse reported that around four months ago, Silberstein put together a team of Israelis and Austrians who from their Vienna headquarters ran two Facebook sites on which they attacked Kurz, Kern’s rival, in a particularly hard-nosed style.
As Profil and Die Presse reported, one of the sites was called “The Truth about Sebastian Kurz,” while the other masqueraded as a legitimate forum of supporters of the foreign minister. On both sites, Kurz was accused of being bankrolled by the Hungarian-born Jewish-American financier and philanthropist George Soros — and of being part of Soros’ “dubious political network.”
Soros hit the headlines in July as the target of an anti-Semitic campaign by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party. According to the right-wing, populist party, Soros was trying to overturn Hungary’s anti-immigration policies while funding organizations that sought to bring a million immigrants into the country.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry initially supported Soros as a victim of anti-Semitism, before attacking him, on the orders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for consistently “undermining Israel’s democratically elected government by funding organizations that slander the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to self-defense.”
In the Austrian campaign, Silberstein played on Soros’ pro-immigration image, claiming that Kurz would open Austria’s borders to tens of thousands of Muslim refugees. Posts on the pages depicted Kurz, 31, variously as a baby and as Pinocchio, accusing him of lying.
The campaign, which was seen as violating a taboo in Austrian politics, led to the resignation on Saturday of Kern’s campaign manager, Georg Niedermühlbichler, who had hired Silberstein.
Kern says he was unaware of the smear campaign that was being conducted on his behalf, calling it “amoral and incredibly stupid.” Silberstein, in interviews with the Austrian media, likewise said the chancellor did not know about the Facebook sites.
“This is not our style, we don’t want this type of politics,” Christoph Matznetter, an official from Kern’s Social Democratic Party who is investigating the affair, told an Austrian radio program on Monday.
The Austrian media has reported that Silberstein was paid between 400,000 and 500,000 euros for his services, but he was fired from the campaign in August after he was arrested in connection with the investigation into Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz and four other businessmen amid suspicions they used fake contracts to launder money. Silberstein previously advised Israeli prime ministers Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and has worked for politicians around the world.
The German-language Austrian news site News reported that Silberstein denied using anti-Semitic messages in Kern’s campaign. He claimed that the intent of the Facebook sites was not negative campaigning but rather an effort to gather data and test different messages on various focus groups.
In a September 30 interview on the Österreich website, Silberstein confirmed that he had met with Kern in the past but said this was a single, unplanned meeting. He also confirmed that he had worked for Kern’s party in the current election campaign and “numerous times” in the past, but declined to address the accusations against him regarding the campaign.