Some 16 years after Israel recalled its ambassador to Vienna to protest the inclusion of Jorg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party in Austria’s government, Haider’s heir as head of the party – Heinz Christian Strache – arrived in Israel on Monday and toured Yad Vashem on Tuesday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon stressed, however, that Strache – invited by some Likud activists – was not invited by the government, which had nothing to do with his trip.
In 2000, then prime minister Ehud Barak said that Haider was not welcome in Israel. This time, former president Shimon Peres, whom Strache asked to meet, refused the request.
The Foreign Ministry’s policy is to not have contact with members of the Freedom Party.
Strache has a record of anti-Semitic and racist activity, said Peres’s spokeswoman, and after consulting with the Foreign Ministry, Peres decided the Austrian politician would not be welcome at the Peres Center for Peace.
The official invitation for the visit came from Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Lahiani, with the involvement of the head of the Likud court, former MK Michael Kleiner.
The main event of Strache’s visit is in the Jordan Valley, and involves a show of support for products from the region, despite decisions by the European Union to label them as “settlement” products. Kleiner said the Foreign Ministry’s policy of boycotting Freedom Party officials was wrong, because Strache is a friend of Israel.
“It was decided that if the anachronistic and stupid boycott of the Foreign Ministry will not be removed, he will come on a private visit,” Kleiner said. “He wants to learn about Israel and encourage Europeans to buy Israeli products.
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reported that Strache’s visit is an attempt to “make himself kosher in Israel.” He is here as part of a seven- person delegation that includes David Lasar, a Jewish Vienna City Council member.
At Yad Vashem Strache laid a wreath under the engraved names of towns in Austria from which Jews were expelled by the Nazis.
He said anti-Semitism has no place in his party and urged a common front against Islamists.
Strache’s party, which last year expelled a member of its parliamentary group for anti-Semitic comments, has sought to redress the worst of its past while retaining popular support with its outspoken opposition to Muslim immigration.
“For us, it’s important to act against anti-Semitism and also against Islamism and terrorism and to discuss the issues we have in common,” he said. “Anti-Semitism often emerges anew from Islamism and from the left.”
Strache, 46, is a rising political force in Austria, with the Freedom Party winning 20 percent of the vote in the last elections in 2013.
In some recent polls its support has been put at as much as 30 percent.
Strache, who failed in a bid to become mayor of Vienna last year, has himself been accused of anti-Semitism in the past.
In 2012, he was vilified over a cartoon posted on his Facebook page that depicted a fat banker with a hooked nose and six-pointed star buttons on his sleeve. The banker was gorging himself at the expense of a thin man representing “the people.”
Strache at the time flatly denied the cartoon was anti-Semitic, but the head of Vienna’s 7,500-member Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, said then that it was “not a coincidence that a caricature of Jews, like the ones in Der Stürmer [a Nazi newspaper] in the 1930s and 1940s appeared on the Facebook page of FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache.”
Then former head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, said in 2012 that Strache “brings shame to Austrian politics and should be repudiated for his anti-Jewish bigotry.”
Two years later, Strache wrote an emotional letter to Israel following the June 2014 kidnapping and murder of Gil-Ad Shaer, Naphtali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach.
In the letter, he wrote that he condemned any incidents of anti-Semitism and wanted to “open a new page” of amicable relations with Israel.
wrote that Strache and his colleagues have repeatedly manifested themselves as pro-Israel in recent years, as have other right-wing parties in Europe. “The anti-Semitic generation is slowly dying out, radical Islam is the new bogeyman,” the daily wrote.
Gil Hoffman and Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.