A bridge between Austria and Israel

Meet the Ambassador: Martin Weiss wants to tell the story of his home country and also that of the Jewish state

Austrian Ambassador to Israel Martin Weiss. (photo credit: AUSTRIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY)
Austrian Ambassador to Israel Martin Weiss.
Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss takes time out from preparations for his National Day reception this week to talk to The Jerusalem Post. This year’s National Day reception is of particular significance. Aside from being the first that he’s hosting in Israel, it is part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic relations between Austria and Israel.
It comes as somewhat of a surprise that Austria and Israel established diplomatic ties almost 10 years before Israel and Germany.
But in the context of history and the politics of the time as Weiss explains it, the surprise element falls into obscurity. Austria had been under Soviet occupation from 1945 to 1955, and when it finally regained independence, it was looking to broaden its relations around the world. In 1955, Israel too cherished such ambitions, and it was a matter of mutual interest to enter into a bilateral relationship.
The two countries have not always been bosom buddies. Weiss acknowledges that there were periods when it was a bumpy ride.
Israel has twice recalled its ambassador from Austria.
The first time was in 1986 when former Nazi officer and UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim was elected president of Austria, and the second time was in 2000 when the extreme-right Freedom Party led by Jörg Haider became part of the coalition of the Austrian government. Israel was not the only country to impose diplomatic sanctions on Austria.
There was also no love lost between prime minister Golda Meir and Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who happened to be Jewish, but who had no leanings whatsoever toward Zionism, which caused Meir to regard him as a traitor to his people. Kreisky came from an assimilated background, and had no spiritual or emotional tie to Judaism, though he never denied that he was Jewish, nor was he opposed to the existence of the State of Israel or for allowing Schönau Castle to become a transit center for Russian Jews migrating to Israel.
These are but a few examples of the ups and downs in the relationship which is now very good with high level exchanges, says Weiss.
Like many of his colleagues in the international community, Weiss did not initially contemplate diplomacy as a career. In fact he has a doctorate in law, and even taught constitutional law at the University of Vienna’s Law School and clerked in a court. One day, he asked himself if he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the courts and reading law books – and the answer was no.
He thought the Foreign Service would be more interesting. So he sat for the Foreign Service exam, passed it, and hasn’t looked back. Now, 26 years later, with a lot of experience in various spheres of diplomacy, but most frequently in press, information and public diplomacy, he is asked on the basis of this experience, what advice he could give to Israel about how to improve its image in the world.
Slightly taken aback by the question because it’s not his place to counsel another country on how to market itself, he laughs and then comes up with a very diplomatic reply. “What every country has to do is to tell about the good sides about what you have to offer, talk about the strengths and explain the problems.”
As far as Israel is concerned, Weiss says that Israel is an “amazingly interesting country and has a lot to offer.” He cites entrepreneurship, which almost everyone puts at the top of the Israeli A list, but then mentions food and says there are a couple of very popular Israeli restaurants in Vienna.
Israel is only his second ambassadorial posting. The first was Cyprus where he served from 2009 to 2012. Immediately before that he spent five years as consul-general in Los Angeles, and was responsible for a large swath of western America. Even though he was not yet an ambassador, his duties were essentially of an ambassadorial nature. Even before that, Weiss was director of Austrian press and information services in Washington in which capacity he was responsible for all media and press activities of the Austrian government in the United States. Between his periods of service abroad he served as director of the Press and Information Department of Austria’s Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Weiss believes that an ambassador has a two-fold task; to tell the story of his home country and also that of the country to which he has been posted and in which he is living and working, so as to make the citizens of both countries appreciate what the other has to offer and to get them to think about opportunities for cooperation in business, culture, science, sport and other fields. Weiss sees himself as a bridge between Austria and Israel with the aim of raising the level of interest among the people of both countries.
Every ambassador has a story to tell about his or her country, he says. In the old fashioned realm of diplomacy, ambassadors may have been invited to lecture to a university group, and would be speaking to perhaps 30 people, but with social media, such as Facebook, an ambassador can get the story out to tens of thousands of people.
Weiss also has a blog and a Twitter account. “Today, social media complements the work of a diplomat,” he says.
Austria has been an EU member country since January 1995, so it was inevitable that in the interview with Weiss, the issue of marking products from across the Green Line would come up.
Labeling goods, wherever they come from, is customary in all EU member countries, he explains. If he buys an Austrian egg in a supermarket in Vienna, it contains not only the fact that it is a local product, but the name of the region, and the village from which it originated, and even the name of the farmer who supplied it.
“In Europe, labeling is the name of the game. It’s a clearcut regulation of products inside and outside internationally recognized borders. We just tell people which is which. If you are in a club you play by the rules. Labeling is what we do. We have to be clear about which is an Israeli product within the Green Line and call a spade a spade. The customer has the right to know where the product comes from.”
Now that the house in which Hitler was born became an international news item this month, and a subject of controversy in Austria, the ugly chapter in Austria’s modern history also found its way into the interview.
Weiss concedes that Austria was late in recognizing and acknowledging its role in the Nazi genocide and in taking responsibility, but the fact of the matter is that it has, and young Austrians like young Germans ask how their parents’ generation could be by-standers to and perpetrators of such atrocities. This introspection began following revelations of Waldheim’s Nazi past, even though he continued to deny any wrongdoing until his dying day.
According to Weiss, young people go to places like the apartment of Sigmund Freud and those of Jewish composers and musicians and to Mathausen extermination camp and they begin to realize the Jewish contribution to Austria’s culture and economy. They feel a sense of shame as they realize what a huge loss the murdered Jews were to Europe and especially to Austria. “They ask themselves how their parents’ generation could allow this to happen. How could they cheer the Nazis and not see what was happening?”
Generally speaking, relations with Austria improved following the creation in 2001 of a General Settlement Fund to compensate Austrian Holocaust survivors, but payments to more than 19,000 applicants did not begin till the end of 2005.
Since then relations between Austria and Israel are consistently improving except for an occasional ripple. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz visited Israel only a few months after Weiss rook up office, and there have been other dignitaries and high ranking political figures since then. Austrian Finance Minister Hans Jörg Schelling is due to visit in November as is Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil.
The large wave of migration from the Middle East and Africa is causing antagonism all over Europe and bringing right-wing radicals out of the closet. Jewish communities in Europe, including Austria, are suffering a backlash from both the radicals and the migrants.
The extreme-right groups are very troubling and are gaining a following by providing simple answers to complex problems such as unemployment, whereby they blame the migrants for taking jobs away from Europeans, says Weiss.
“It’s a big challenge to our politicians.”
If the migrant issue is handled properly, and practical politicians provide schools and language classes for them, the migrants could be quite beneficial to the countries which take them in, Weiss opines.
Like all his fellow ambassadors, Weiss and his wife, Susan, like to explore the country in their spare time. They’ve been to Eilat, Haifa, Acre, the Galilee, the Negev, Masada and the Dead Sea. There is no mention of Jerusalem. When this is put to him, Weiss says that he is in Jerusalem three or four times a week for meetings in government ministries, the Knesset, the Hebrew University, the Israel Museum, etc.
“I have the best of both worlds,” he says explaining that on the one hand he is frequently in Jerusalem and on the other his residence in Herzliya Pituah is only a few minutes from the beach, which allows him to go for a run on the sand every morning. He also belongs to a bike club and frequently rides to work. On Yom Kippur, when the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway was free of traffic, he biked all the way up to Jerusalem and enjoyed every minute.
He loves the diversity of Israel’s music scene and the general informality and straightforwardness of Israelis, and delights in being able to attend any kind of function without a suit and tie – something he could not get away with in Austria.
He likes reading history and biographies – especially about Israel. He is currently reading Ari Means Lion, the autobiography of Ari Rath, editor emeritus of The Jerusalem Post.
Weiss, who has met the Vienna-born Rath who now divides his time between Vienna and Jerusalem, says