Israel weighs how to deal with Austrian party founded by ex-Nazis

Israel’s formal policy has been to avoid contact with those parties and not to engage with them or their members at a diplomatic level.

December 18, 2017 02:25
3 minute read.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Freedom Party, celebrates in Vienna with his wife

Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the far-right Freedom Party, celebrates in Vienna with his wife, Phillipa Beck, after Austria's general election. (photo credit: MICHAEL DALDER/REUTERS)


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Israel is waiting to see how like-minded countries opt to deal with an Austrian government that includes five ministers and a vice chancellor affiliated with the far-right Freedom Party ( FPÖ) before determining its own policy, diplomatic officials said on Sunday.

Thus far, Israel has maintained a non-engagement policy with the  FPÖ because of its Nazi past – it was founded in 1956 by former Nazis – and the antisemitic and racist leanings of some members. In 1999 Israel recalled its ambassador to Vienna for more than three years because the party, then headed by Joerg Haider, joined the coalition.

On Friday Sebastian Kurz, who was elected Austria’s next chancellor in October, announced that a coalition has been formed with the FPO, giving that party five ministries, including foreign, defense and interior.

The interior ministry is the one that will be charged with ensuring the safety of the country’s Jewish community.

Though there is little expectation that Jerusalem will take a similar move today, senior levels in the Foreign Ministry remain “suspicious about the intentions of the FPO regarding antisemitism, racism and Holocaust denial.”

One of Israel’s biggest challenges will be how to deal with the country’s new foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, who wrote a book called My Middle East in 2014 that included a paragraph comparing the Zionist movement to the Nazi “blood and soil” ideology. Kneissl, however, has never been an  FPÖ party member.

The Austrian Jewish community, adamantly opposed to the FPÖ, has let it be known that it will not deal with any FPO ministers, but rather with the directors-general of the ministers that the party controls.

In an email sent after the elections, Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Jewish Communities of Austria, wrote that the Jewish community, as well as the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish congress, have called on Kurz not to include the FPÖ in the next government, because “many representatives of the FPÖ,” including its leader Heinz-Christian Strache, have “used antisemitic codes, made extreme right-wing statements and have promoted hatred and racism,” including during the recent electoral campaign.

Furthermore, the letter read, several of the party’s candidates have in the past “called for the elimination of legislation against Holocaust denial.”

The letter said that the community “calls on all Jewish organizations, members of the Israeli government, political figures and NGOs to respect our position” on the matter.

Israel’s unstated policy until now toward far-Right parties in Europe has been to break them up into three distinct categories.
The first are the fascist and neo-Nazi parties, such as Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, and the NDP in Germany. These are parties with which Israel will not engage, even if they join the government.

The second category includes parties – like the  FPÖ – that have a Nazi or fascist past, and antisemitic and racist tendencies. Other parties in this category include the National Front in France, AfD in Germany – which did surprisingly well in that country’s elections this year  – and the Swedish Democrats.

Israel’s formal policy has been to avoid contact with those parties and not to engage with them or their members at a diplomatic level. This means that neither the prime minister nor the foreign minister meet their leaders if they visit, and that Israel’s ambassadors in those countries do not meet with the party heads.

At the same time, Jerusalem cannot do anything about errant ministers, MKs or politicians who meet with members of these parties from time to time, as was the case when Strache visited Israel last year.

In the third category are populist parties with some racist elements, such as Geert Wilders Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, UKIP in Britain and the Vlaams Belang Party in Belgium. These parties do not have Nazi or fascist pasts. Israel’s policy toward them is generally not to boycott but, rather, to deal with each according to the particular situation and on merit.  Israel does engage with Wilders party, and has normal relations with UKIP.

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