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)
Austria’s new right-wing government presents Israel with a foreign policy dilemma: establish ties with what seems to be a pro-Israel, pro-Zionist Austrian leadership; or show solidarity with the Austria’s Jewish community’s leaders and keep in place a ban on official contact with a party founded by a former Nazi SS officer.
On one hand, Israel is a state that was born in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the inception of the Cold War. It is a living testimony to the tragic fact that Europeans could not be trusted to defend the Jewish minority against totalitarianism – of the Nazi, fascist and Communist variety. Israel’s leaders have a moral obligation to be vigilant against any form of racism or bigotry. Anti-Muslim sentiments are easily transferable to other groups – Jews included. If Europe were not inundated with migrants from Muslim countries, some far-right Europeans would turn their attention to Jew-hatred. European Jews are acutely aware of this.
On the other hand, the European Right has proven of late be among Israel’s strongest allies. This was evident most recently in the responses to US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem. While the EU establishment and those countries toeing the establishment line were critical of Trump, countries with right-wing leaderships at odds with EU policies – particularly immigration policy – were either silent or supportive.
The Czech Republic’s President Milos Zeman openly supported the US move. Poland, another country with a right-wing “populist” government that is among Israel’s staunchest allies in Europe, has refrained from commenting. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said in the past that Brussels’s anti-Israel policies are nonsensical and hurt its own interests.
Austria is no different. Hans-Christian Strache, head of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), which will form Vienna’s government together with the center-right Austrian People’s Party, expressed sympathy earlier this month for Israel’s desire to have all embassies in Jerusalem. After a trip to Israel in June, he vowed to do everything in his power, “be it legislative or eventually executive, to move the Austrian Embassy from its actual place in Ramat Gan to Jerusalem.”
Given this complicated situation, Israel has opted to adopt a cautious approach to Austria. Normal ties will be maintained with ministers from the Austrian People’s Party. But Israel is still mulling how to deal with ministers from the FPO, which Israel has refrained from engaging with since the 1950s.
As part of the coalition agreement signed in Vienna over the weekend, the FPO will get the vice chancellery, as well as five portfolios, including the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry, which is responsible for safeguarding Austria’s Jewish communities.
For the time being, Israeli officials will restrict contacts in the respective offices to the professional echelon. The Austrian Jewish community’s official leadership has said it will not deal with any FPO ministers, but only with the civil servants, in protest against FPO’s Nazi roots.
Israel is walking a delicate line. From a purely realpolitik perspective, Israel might not have any qualms with establishing ties with the FPO. But as the world’s only Jewish state, Israel has a responsibility not only to its own citizens but to Jews everywhere. It also has a moral responsibility to take a stand against xenophobia even when not directed against Jews.
Similarities have been drawn between the rise of Trump in the US and the rise of right-wing populism in Europe. Trump’s lack of popularity among American Jews is comparable to the Right’s failure to gain the support of most European Jews. However, whereas mainstream conservatism in the US can trace itself back to America’s founding fathers and is strongly rooted in democratic tradition, conservatism in Europe is something different altogether. It is connected to ethnic nationalism that failed to integrate Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries – with murderous results.
Even if the anti-immigration policies being touted by Austria’s new government are reasonable, they are inevitably tainted by Austria’s past. This historical baggage is the tragedy of Europe – and this is what is complicating Israel’s policy regarding Austria’s new government.