Europe is “punching below its weight” in terms of involvement in the Middle East diplomatic process, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said on Tuesday.
Speaking to a small group of journalists just prior to meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kern pointed out that Europe is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority and also the biggest export market for Israel. Kern said that these economic facts give Europe a “good lever to influence the situation,” but that it is not sufficiently using that lever.
After mentioning that Europe is the largest donor to the PA , he said, “the question is are we really strategically playing that card – it doesn’t look so, honestly speaking, but that is an issue that we have to discuss internally in Brussels.”
Europe, according to the Austrian leader on his first visit to Israel, “ is seen as a soft power in a period where you have to face hard conflicts, so it is a little difficult to come on with your soft power concept,” he said, adding this is something Europe needs to “reconsider.”
“We have to play a role here because of our economic ties,” he said. “But on the other hand we have to respect that this is really a unique situation. The biggest mistake of Israel, as the saying goes, is that it was not founded between Austria and Switzerland – it would have made life much easier.”
Kern, who stated that “Israel has more support in Europe than you perceive,” said the migration crisis facing the continent has given it a greater understanding of Israel’s situation.
“The sensitivities here are different,” Kern said, saying that Austrian “can learn a lot” from Israel. “We are not surrounded by Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and so on, so our neighborhood is much more peaceful, so it is easier to deal with.”
Apparently referring to Israeli restriction on the movement of Palestinians from the territories, Kern said that one of the lessons Europe can learn from Israel is that “some restrictions and limitations are needed” on movement. “The understanding of the ways [Israel] treats Palestinian migrations has greatly increased,” he said.
Kern, who participated Sunday evening at the central Yad Vashem ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day
, said, “We have come a really long way from World War II, the horrific Holocaust, the denial of our responsibility, to the day when we have remembered together what happened in the Holocaust period.”
Kern acknowledged that it took his country “a long time to accept our responsibility for the Holocaust, and now we are commemorating together – that is really kind of a breakthrough and shows how good the relations between Israel and Austria are.”
Regarding the rise of rightwing parties in Europe, Kern said he believes that the elections last month in the Netherlands, as well as the one in France
on Sunday where Marie Le Pen performed worse than the polls predicted, indicates that the trend line for populist parties is on the decline.
With that, Kern said that in Europe “the whole political scene has shifted right,” and he gave as an example an open letter Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote to immigrants in January to “behave normally or go away” as an example. He said that such a move a decade ago would have caused a scandal.
Kern said that one of the biggest challenges facing Europe is to prevent the creation of parallel worlds where the immigrants live isolated from the rest of society. He said it is “embarrassing” to see how many Turks living in Austria voted in favor of the referendum giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan increased power, a number he put at 73%.
Netanyahu, before meeting Kern, said that the Austrian leader’s presence at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies was “deeply significant.”
He noted that Kern’s mother helped bring food to Jews hiding in Vienna during the war, saying that “You honor her legacy and I think you honor human legacy, which is important for all of us.”