Austria's Far-right Foreign Minister a Tough Critic of Both Israel and Muslim World

She was raised in Amman, fell in love with a Lebanese Christian, and studied at Hebrew University. Karin Kneissl's voice found a home in Austria's far-right party, and will be prominently heard in the new Austrian government to be sworn in Monday

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Designated Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl on December 17, 2017 at the Hofburg palace in Vienna.
Designated Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl on December 17, 2017 at the Hofburg palace in Vienna.Credit: Herbert Pfarrhofer / AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

She is unimpressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well. She volunteered for Amnesty International but found a home in the far-right Freedom Party. She grew up in the Middle East but warns of the of immigrants coming from there and also has a unique explanation of the reason for the outbreak of the Arab Spring

Designated Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, an expert on the Middle East whose speaks Arabic and Hebrew, will likely be one of the most prominent voices in the new government to be sworn in on Monday and to be led by the outgoing Austrian foreign minister and incoming chancellor, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz.

Kneissl is not an ordinary politician. Although her resume includes service in the Austrian Foreign Ministry, she gained her first fame as an opinionated, provocative journalist.

Officially she doesn’t belong to any party, but her appointment as foreign minister was made at the request of Heinz-Christian Strache, the vice chancellor and head of the Freedom Party, which has anti-Semitic and even Nazi roots. He has already described her as a “female Kreisky,” referring to Bruno Kreisky, Austria’s Jewish and anti-Zionist chancellor, who was the second most popular politician in Austria after Hitler.

Kneissl was born in Vienna in 1965, but she spent part of her childhood in Amman, Jordan, where her father worked as a pilot in the service of King Hussein. (Her mother was a stewardess.) At the University of Vienna she studied law and Middle Eastern languages, and later broadened her horizons with academic studies at Hebrew University and the University of Jordan. She wrote her doctorate in international law on the concept of borders in the Middle East.

According to her official resumé she is fluent, at some level, in eight languages – German, English, French, Arabic, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian and Hebrew. Starting in 1989 she served for 10 years in the Austrian Foreign Ministry, but since 1999 she has been a researcher, lecturer, writer and independent journalist, one who is very popular in the Austrian media as a Middle East expert.

A perusal of the articles she has published and the interviews she has given in recent years indicate she doesn’t hesitate to express controversial opinions and to word them in a provocative manner that attracts fire. That was the case when she discussed the Arab Spring as a product of the “testosterone” of young Arabs who don’t find women, because they don’t have work or a home of their own, and therefore have lost their status as men in the traditional society.

She criticized Zionism in her book “My Middle East,” where she wrote that Herzl’s ideology is based on that of “blood and land” – a key motif of Nazi ideology.

Nor did she spare criticism of Islam. She says that “Islam didn’t influence European society and culture as fundamentally as did Christianity and Judaism,” and left a mark only in Andalusian Spain and in parts of southeastern Europe.

In one of the interviews, when asked whether Europe is “surrendering” to Islam, she answered in the affirmative, added: “Often we get down on our knees before Islam.” As an example she mentioned Muslim animal slaughter, which is permitted in Austria despite the suffering it causes the animals. “This question applies not only to Islam,” she added, apparently referring to kosher slaughter in Judaism. She also expressed support for the prohibition against head covering in Austria.

One of the greatest targets of her criticism is the influx of refugees. She described German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 open-door policy as “negligence.”

As someone who spent many years in the Middle East, Kneissl once said her first love was a young Lebanese Christian. At the same time, she attested to the growing extremism in the region. “In the 1980s we ate with Palestinian friends in Jerusalem and held discussions about Marx and Engels while sipping wine and smoking cigarettes. Fifteen years later, the same people had full beards and no longer shook my hand,” she said. On another occasion she said it’s easier for a Muslim to be drawn to extremism than it is for a Christian or a Jew, due to what she described as the nature of Islam.

She opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, saying, “It’s impossible to achieve democracy and human rights with bombs. It’s quite arrogant to say that ‘We’ll show you where your political system should go,’ because from the point of view of the Middle East, our system isn’t such a success. Democracy in the West is sighing: Brexit, Trump ,” she said.

As for Israel, she once wrote that it’s “an army with a country,” as was said of Prussia in its day. In an article titled: “Israel, aggressor or victim?” she wrote of Israeli-Iranian relations, “Nobody in the Middle East is only a victim or only an aggressor.” On the same occasion she criticized Netanyahu, writing, “His brother was an Israeli soldier, at a time when Bibi was making money in New York.” She accused Netanyahu of being trigger happy, writing that “the myth of the heroism of his dead brother hangs on his shoulders, and he wants to prove that he’s a real commander.”

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