Israel and Vienna are holding negotiations on bilateral ties between the countries, including the policy to boycott the Nazi-founded Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), which is part of the governing coalition, Foreign Ministry European Affairs Division head Zvi Tal told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday.
“The results of the election [in Austria] and the FPO’s entry into the government created a challenge,” he said. “The prime minister and foreign minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] instructed his office to avoid all connections with the party.
“Recently, the sides appointed people – the Foreign Ministry director-general and the Austrian chancellor’s spokesman – to manage communications between the countries about all bilateral ties, governmental, parliamentary and on the party level.”
The FPO, a far-right populist party, was founded by a former SS officer in 1956, and its longtime leader Joerg Haider was known to make pro-Nazi remarks. When Haider became a minister in the Austrian government, Israel removed its ambassador from Vienna.
The party’s current leader, Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache
, was in a neo-Nazi group but has said that association was when he was “stupid, naïve and young.”
Still, local antisemitism watchdogs have said the FPO was involved in dozens of incidents in recent years, and the party continues to campaign on strongly anti-immigrant lines.
Tal said the Foreign Ministry thinks Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz takes Israel’s concerns about the FPO seriously, citing a recent speech in which he talked about “Austria’s commitment to Israel and its security needs.”
Likud MK Yehudah Glick has met Strache in Vienna, courting controversy at home. His motion to the agenda, along with one from Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova who opposes ties with the FPO, led to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting.
Svetlova argued that the boycott should continue because “we receive reports of antisemitic incidents in which FPO activists are involved. This party must know that if it wants relations with Israel, it has to change. That is our moral and Jewish obligation.”
Austrian Jewish community representatives gave a presentation showing examples tying the FPO to antisemitic acts and statements, and called on the government to continue the boycott.
Glick, however, said Israel, which is itself fighting a boycott movement, cannot have its own boycott of the second-largest party in Austria. He read from the FPO’s platform, which states that they reject all forms of violence and totalitarianism and see all humans as being born equal.
“In two months, Austria’s foreign minister, a professional appointee of the FPO, will become the new president of the European Union. Will Israel boycott her?” Glick asked.
Likud MK Sharren Haskel asked if the Foreign Ministry boycotts left-wing parties who call to boycott Israel.
MK Amir Peretz pointed out that the Labor Party has downgraded its ties with its UK counterpart since Jeremy Corbyn, who has worked in tandem with Holocaust deniers and other antisemitic groups, became party leader.
Peretz, the chairman of the Israel-Austria Parliamentary Friendship group, called the current situation awkward, and said it’s essential to listen to the Jewish community in Austria.
“We need to send a message to the whole world that Israel will not let give antisemitic parties a break, no matter where they are,” he said.
Former MK Collette Avital said: “All indications show [FPO] didn’t shake off its antisemitic stances,” and suggested an outline to make ties between Israel and the far-right parties in Europe possible.
Some of the conditions far-right parties in Europe would have to meet is to remove people with antisemitic views from the party, change their platforms to remove antisemitic views, and commit to pass laws against antisemitism.
Avital, representing Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, where she is a board member, suggested that the FPO specifically require party members to leave antisemitic student groups and stop funding the antisemitic newspaper Die Aula
Austrian Ambassador to Israel Martin Weiss said the current government is the most pro-Israel one he has seen in nearly 30 years as a diplomat.
“Relations with Israel are stronger in diplomacy and tourism,” he said. “It took Austria time to take responsibility on the subject of the Holocaust and for years, there was a tradition of hiding behind victimhood of the Austrian people. Today, Austria takes responsibility for the Holocaust, and that is the position many parties share, including the Freedom Party.”
“Our government is made up of two parties, the Conservatives and the Freedom Party, and the government’s stance is that Israel is the Jewish state and Austria recognizes Israel’s security interests,” Weiss said.