Austria, Israel must defend democracy together, FM tells 'Post'

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Schallenberg says Vienna and Jerusalem must stand together to defend democracy, hopes Bennett’s Russia-Ukraine mediation succeeds.

Austria's new Chancellor of the People's Party (OVP) Alexander Schallenberg addresses the media at the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Austria October 11, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)
Austria's new Chancellor of the People's Party (OVP) Alexander Schallenberg addresses the media at the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Austria October 11, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LISI NIESNER)

“The relationship between Israel and Austria is better than ever,” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg declared on Tuesday.

The minister’s latest visit to Israel comes after years in which Jerusalem and Vienna have grown closer, with cooperation in a wide range of areas.

Schallenberg played a pivotal role in cultivating that relationship, first as a foreign affairs adviser to former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, then as foreign minister, and, briefly, as chancellor after Kurz stepped down amid a corruption investigation.

Schallenberg about a wide range of issues, from the war in Ukraine to Iran talks, the COVID-19 pandemic and Israel-Austria relations in an interview in Jerusalem.

The Jerusam Post: In recent remarks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listed countries in Europe and how he saw their support. He said, “Austria, you have an opportunity.” What do you think he wants from Austria?

Schallenberg: I saw Zelensky in Kyiv with my Czech and Slovakian colleagues in February, and I had a lengthy discussion with him, I am in regular contact with [Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro] Kuleba. 

The Austrian government has taken a clear stance. We had close channels of communication with the Russians, Austria and Russia share a century-long history.

But what we are witnessing in Ukraine is a direct attack on the security architecture built up after WW II and on the rules-based international order. Politically, Austria cannot be neutral and we won’t be neutral. There is a very clear red line.

JP: The European Union’s Foreign Affairs Committee said it was reviewing relations with countries based on their response to EU appeals over Russia. Should Israel be concerned?

S: We have to be aware that we are entering a new phase that will be a lot more confrontational, be it in bilateral or in multilateral forums like the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly.

This is a direct attack on international law, on humanitarian law and on the rule of law. We don’t want the law of the jungle, we want rule of law to prevail. Nobody can be indifferent.

We are thankful to our Israeli friends who are trying to mediate and build up channels of dialogue. We need as many people as possible to talk and find ways to end this war as quickly as possible.

Wars in Europe tend not to stay in Europe. This affects all of us. There are already concerns in the Middle East about wheat prices and oil prices. The shockwaves of this earthquake are felt around the globe.

JP: What are the expectations from Israel on that front?

S: I would hope Israel’s voice will be heard in Moscow and that Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett and others can make their voices heard and prevail.

We want an end of hostilities, an end of this war that is causing incredible human suffering.

Yes, the Soviet Union had a share in liberating Europe from Nazi Germany and from Hitler, but what is happening now, the bombing of Holocaust memorial sites, the killing of Holocaust survivors - This is appalling and has to stop immediately. Russia has crossed so many red lines - it is difficult to even count them. 

JP: What are your plans for this visit to Israel?

S: I am meeting with my friend Yair Lapid. The relationship between Austria and Israel is better than ever. That is because the policies the governments pursue and the people involved.

What was especially moving for me, personally, was the visit of Yair Lapid to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

That was a very touching moment. It was extraordinary to see a member of the Israeli government, whose grandfather was brutally killed, standing side by side with members of the Austrian government, including Chancellor Nehammer.

Part of my visit’s goal is to strengthen this strategic partnership. I want this relationship to be strengthened so much that it cannot slide back anymore. It is there to last. It is not about our history, it is about pluralistic democracies standing together.

Only about 25% of UN member states are part of what we would call the club of democratic, pluralistic countries. In the Middle East, it’s Israel.

Beyond our history and our responsibility, there is the fact that free countries, with freedom of assembly, freedom of opinion and freedom of the media have to stand together because our way of life is being attacked and challenged.

JP: Former chancellor Kurz and former prime minister Netanyahu had a very close relationship. Has the fact that neither is still in power impacted the ties between the countries?

S: In Israel, there is a new government, a new Prime Minister, and in Austria we have a new Chancellor. Still, absolutely nothing has changed. We still want a strategic partnership irrespective of who is in charge. This is about the Austrian people and the Israeli people.

JP: Austria began granting citizenship to Jews and the descendants of Jews who lived in Austria during the Holocaust. I understand you had the chance to meet some of them here in Israel. How was that?

S: I had the tremendous honour to hand over Austrian citizenship documents to five new citizens of Austria, the descendants of victims of the Shoah.

I told them that the honor is all ours because each and every one of them has a family history of deprivation, of taking away individual identities, of persecution, of killing and they still - now - put trust in this new Austria. 

For far too long Austria has looked away from its darkest chapters. Now we assume our historical responsibility and base our policies on it.

They honour us by taking Austrian citizenship; 5,000 people already had their declarations approved here in Israel alone. That’s a village in Austria! They are a human bridge bringing our people together.

JP: Vienna is hosting the Iran nuclear talks, which Jerusalem has been eying with concern. What is Austria’s position on the Iran deal?

S: We are fully aware of the divergent views between us and our Israeli friends. We fully understand the sense of threat that Iran poses.

The security of Israel and of the Israeli people is part of our government policy. We have the same goal: Iran must never have nuclear weapons. We have different ways of approaching this goal.

We know Iran’s breakout time is now basically a couple of weeks. Once Pandora’s box opens, you cannot close it anymore. We would rather have a not-perfect agreement that gives the possibility of controlling things, of looking behind the curtain and seeing what’s going on, than having nothing at all.

Nobody claims the agreement is perfect, but not to have anything, how would it increase security for us or for you? That’s my approach.

At end of the day, it is most important to explain to the people of Israel that we have same goal, to increase security and avoid a nuclear arms race in the Gulf region. That would be to the detriment of everyone’s security, Europe included.

JP: Iran is seeking not only to have sanctions lifted, which would already mean that they’ll have money to fund their terrorist proxies, but to get guarantees that Europeans and others will do business with them. Is that something that you think will happen?

S: Iran’s Holocaust denial, public pronouncements on Israel and the people of Israel and Jewish people, in general, are simply unacceptable, and we react very strongly to them. What Iran is doing in other parts of the world, financing terrorism, is simply unacceptable.

We want this to stop. How do we get there? We have a common goal. Is it by excluding them as we did after 1979? Did decades of sanctions and trying to push them away help?

The Austrian approach is very different. It is to talk and try to find some agreement, a treaty you can observe or say ‘you are not abiding by this.’

It is our hope and in the interest of Iran to give in on nuclear research for access to world markets. I have been to Iran several times and I continue to believe you can change people and policies.

When people leave their countries to do business or to live abroad or to travel, they see the world might be quite different than their leaders have been telling them.

JP: You’re in Israel the day after the Negev Summit, which brought together the foreign ministers of four Arab states, plus US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. What did you think of that? 

S: I think the Abraham Accords are really a watershed moment and the Negev summit is impressive. It is something that would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago. We are witnessing tectonic plates moving in this region.

Austria has a strategic partnership with the United Arab Emirates as well, so this is something we are encouraging.

We all know, at the end of the day, there is one issue that cannot be ignored or pushed aside and that’s peace negotiations or a treaty in the long run with the Palestinian people. One cannot replace the other. 

 JP: We have had a lot of terrorist attacks lately. (The interview took place shortly before the shooting in Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan.) That tends to harden stances.

S: First, I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims. I know the recent attacks have been shocking. The fact that Daesh shows its hideous face again is terrible.

But look at the Abraham Accords, at what is happening in the region. These forces are much bigger and much stronger.

I’m sure the timing of the Negev Summit is no coincidence. The Israeli government is completely right to say we won't be disrupted by terrorism.

The Abraham Accords are the most promising thing coming out of the region, which in the past couple of decades has been poor in positive news.

JP: Israel and Austria consulted with each other on the response at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is that still taking place?

S: Last autumn, I held a video conference with Prime Minister Bennett about the omicron variant. One of the first countries we reached out to was Israel, which had very clear protocols in the way it reacted, and for us, it was an example. 

This cooperation is part of the broader close relationship. We shared many things about how to approach the situation, which was new to all of us.

There has never been a pandemic affecting all our countries at the same time. All of us were fully implicated this time. We already established cooperation in 2020, in the first wave, and it has gone on since then.