There were two major political developments in pro-Israel countries on Saturday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu briefly addressing one – the surprise victory of Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Australia – while avoiding the other: the snap elections called in Austria.
At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu sent “congratulations to another friend of mine, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who won the elections after the polls consistently predicted that he would lose. At the last minute, in the final hours, he won. He defined this as a miracle.”
Had Morrison lost to the Labor challenger, Bill Shorten, chances are that Netanyahu would have sent him congratulations because the prime minister has developed a good relationship with him as well, having met with him both in Israel and Australia.
This election, according to one source in Jerusalem, was between one party friendly to Israel, and another party even friendlier to Israel. Morrison represented the “even friendlier party” the Liberals; Shorten, the friendly party, Labor.
Israel’s relations with Australia are strong, among the strongest in the world, just after the US and then Germany, and right up there with Canada. That would not have changed significantly even had Shorten defeated Morrison.
But still, with Morrison Israel has a strong friend who took the half-step of recognizing west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, and opened a Trade and Defense Office there. The Labor Party said it would have reversed those moves.
With Morrison, Israel can rest easy that Canberra will not recognize a Palestinian state before an agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians. The Labor Party conference in December passed a non-binding resolution calling on a future Shorten government to do just that.
And with Morrison Israel has a strong friend who has aligned Australia’s votes in the UN on Israel-related issues to that of the US. The Labor Party pledged not only to fight against anti-Israel bias at the UN, but also to judge each issue on its own merits.
In other words, Netanyahu would have gotten along just fine with a Shorten-led government, but will find it even easier under Morrison.
And the cherry on top of the sundae, as far as Israel is concerned, is the apparent election to parliament from Sydney’s Wentworth district of David Sharma, Australia’s former ambassador to Israel and a man seen as a champion of strong Israeli-Australian ties.
One source in Jerusalem said that if Sharma wins – he had a slim lead of 1,751 votes Sunday evening with one polling place still to be counted – Israel should “open a bottle of champagne.” Not because he will “tip the scales,” but rather because “he is a true friend of Israel, with all his heart and soul.”
Morrison said that his decision last October to consider recognizing Jerusalem and moving the embassy there was influenced by Sharma.
Israel, however, played no real role in the campaign. The election was about domestic Australian issues. Nevertheless, as a result of the balloting, one of Israel’s best friends on the world stage will remain in power.
The same cannot be said with equal certainty about Austria, whose young Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for a snap election after his Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught on video discussing giving state contracts to a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece in return for financial or political favors.
Strache is the head of the far-right Freedom Party, a party which Israel and the Austrian Jewish community refuse to have contact with because of its Nazi associations.
When Kurz won the election in 2017, he formed a coalition with the Freedom Party, but Israel decided not to have contact with the party as long as it did not unequivocally disconnect itself from its past. Though Strache made very pro-Israel comments, lower level party members made comments deemed either neo-Nazi or apologetic of the Nazis.
However, the relationship with Kurz soared, and he emerged as perhaps Israel’s strongest supporter among Western European leaders. Kurz became the poster boy for the possibility of being a conservative European leader who makes no bones of his support for Israel and at the same times is neither a populist nor anti-European.
He demonstrated that one can be pro-Israel and still be pro-European – not a Brexiter; nor an anti-immigrant populist like Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini; nor someone, like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, suspected of not being a democrat.
Kurz’s only stain was that because of political considerations he joined a coalition with Strache’s party – a coalition that the chancellor has now ended.
Saturday’s developments means that a strong and sincere friend of Israel in Europe now has to go to the polls, and – as in every election in a democracy – the candidates know how they will enter the fray, but not how they will emerge from it.
Perhaps the Freedom Party will suffer from the recent scandal, and its strength will decline, or perhaps Kurz will be returned to power with a stronger hand – both positive developments from Israel’s point of view. On the other hand, Kurz could also lose the elections, and as a result Israel would lose a steadfast friend in the heart of Europe.