Austrian chancellor: EU needs better understanding of situation in Israel

An interview with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Sebastian Kurz visits the Western Wall, June 10, 2018 (photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
Sebastian Kurz visits the Western Wall, June 10, 2018
(photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz gave a speech in Jerusalem on Monday that would have made Bruno Kreisky, a former Austrian chancellor, and Kurt Waldheim, a former Austrian president, cringe.
Austria, Kurz said, was not only a victim of Nazism – as the country widely portrayed itself up until the 1990s – but also a perpetrator of Nazi crimes. As such, he continued, the country has a responsibility not only to its Jews but also to the country of the Jews.
Kreisky – a Jew who was adamantly pro-Palestinian and infamously did not even offer then-premier Golda Meir a glass of water, she said, in 1973 when she went to entreat him not to accede to Arab terrorist demands and close an Austrian transit camp to Soviet Jews – would have winced at Kurz’s statement about an Austrian national responsibility for Israel’s security.
And Waldheim, a former SS officer, would have been pained by Kurz’s statements about the country’s own Nazis.
“We are not only responsible for what we do, but also for what we do not do,” Kurz said. “And as the representative of Austria, I have to admit there were many people in Austria who did nothing to fight the Nazi regime, far too many actively supported those horrors and even were perpetrators.”
This was not the first time an Austrian leader owned up to the country’s past. Former chancellor Franz Vranitzky gave a speech more than 20 years ago saying that Austrians were not only victims but also perpetrators.
But there are two differences between what Vranitzky and Kurz said. The first is that Vranitzky came from the Left, and it is easier for the European Left to make these types of admissions about World War II than it is for the Right. Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party is a conservative, center-right party.
The second is that Vranitzky did not draw Kurz’s conclusions – that Austria’s history gives it a responsibility for Israel’s future.
Kurz sounded downright Angela Merkel-like in his speech, saying that his country’s commitment to Israel’s security – “within our capacity as a neutral country” – is a moral obligation that is part of its raison d’etre. This is what the German chancellor famously said in the Knesset in 2008. Granted, Austria is not Germany – it is not a political, economic or military powerhouse – but still, the sentiment is noble.
Or is it? If, as Kurz so articulately said, there is no room in the world or in Austria for antisemitism, then how is it that he is in a coalition government with the Freedom Party, a right-wing party started by former Nazis in 1956, and which was led for years by Jörg Haider? The Austrian Jewish community has urged Israel not to engage with this party, and Israel has refused to deal formally with its officials and politicians.
Is there not a contradiction between Kurz’s statements and his sitting in a government with the Freedom Party?
This was one of the questions The Jerusalem Post posed to the youthful Kurz – he is only 31 – in an interview in a backroom of the Jerusalem International Convention Center on Monday, after his speech to the AJC Global Forum. What follows are transcripts from that interview.
You spoke passionately today, as you did a couple of months ago in Vienna, against antisemitism. Yet you are in a coalition government with a party with an antisemitic past and with whom the Israeli government does not want to engage. Is there a contradiction there?
Well they for sure had an antisemitic past, and other parties also have had difficult histories. I understand there are concerns, but on the other hand the Freedom Party has started a process to fight against antisemitism inside their own party, and are also investigating their own past with a committee of historians.
So you are comfortable that the Freedom Party would be okay with the types of statements you made today about the Holocaust and Austria’s historic responsibilities?
Definitely. All the decisions we have taken in the government – like supporting Yad Vashem, fostering relations between Austria and Israel, strengthening youth exchanges between our two countries, building a memorial wall in Austria for victims of the Shoah, giving Austrian passports to children and grandchildren of victims of the Shoah – all those decision were taken together in the government.
Did you get a sense in your meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today that Israel was going to change its policy regarding engagement with the Freedom Party?
This was not the main issue. We talked a lot about our cooperation, the situation here in Israel, with the Palestinians, the region – we also talked about the coalition in Austria, but it was not the issue. I think that the prime minister and other responsible people will follow the developments of the Freedom Party carefully, and that the Freedom Party will hopefully take the chance to reduce the concerns.
Is the failure of our government to engage with the Freedom party hindering Israel’s relations with Austria?
We have strong and good relations – Austria is a friend and supporter of Israel. Bibi Netanyahu and I have a very strong personal relationship, and I am sure we will continue our very good cooperation.
Israel is grappling with the issue of how to deal with the far-right parties in Europe – in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Greece and elsewhere. Are there far-right parties that you would not engage with?
The far-right parties are different in the European Union, and I don’t think you can compare the parties to each other...they are different, in many cases they have a different history, and some of the positions from the far-right parties would be absolutely unacceptable in Austria.
Is there any party in particular you would not be able to tolerate?
It it is always difficult to compare political situations in different countries.
What is your view on the Polish law making it illegal to say “Polish death camps?”
It is important to say that the camps were initiated, planned, built and also operated by Germans – and, of course, by too many Austrians. We have a strong historical responsibility, and we in Austria know that.
Netanyahu called your visit to the Western Wall on Sunday “important.” Why did you go there? That is not something generally on the itinerary for EU leaders when they come here.
I think the question should be why I should not have done it. I also visited the Western Wall as foreign minister, and for me personally it is a very spiritual place.
The EU, however, considers east Jerusalem “occupied territory,” and – for instance – the Bulgarian prime minister is not planning to go there when he comes here later this week.
I respect those who do not go there, but I also think it is legitimate to go there. It’s a special and spiritual place, and I will also go there the next time I’m in Jerusalem.
In some EU countries – the Czech Republic and Romania – there are moves in the parliament to move their embassies to Jerusalem. Would you consider that?
We think the basis for such a decision should be negotiations between the two parties, and as long as we don’t have an outcome here, then we will not move our embassy to Jerusalem.
Did this come up in discussions with the prime minister?
He knows and respects our position, and I understand and respect his point of view.
You said with Netanyahu earlier that you want to raise awareness inside the EU of Israel’s special security situation. What do you mean?
I think this is necessary because we live in a totally different part of the world – Austria has neighbors like Switzerland and Liechtenstein – and I think it is important that we have an understanding of the special situation in the region, and for the special security needs of Israel. I think that more intensive exchanges between Israel and the European Union would be good in order to have a better understanding of the different situation Israel is in.
There was criticism from the EU over recent events in Gaza, saying that Israel’s response was disproportionate. Do you agree?
I do not think it is best to just focus only on these cases, but to have a more general debate about the situation Israel is in.
Eighty years after the Shoah, we have a lot of antisemitism in the region – look at Iran, for example – and also growing antisemitism in Europe because of antisemitic ideas which were imported during the refugee crisis.
We in Europe have an obligation to fight against antisemitism in Europe and in the region, and if we do this, then there is probably more room to point the finger at Israel – but we also have to do our homework.
We here have, for quite some time, been on the receiving end of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s diatribes. You have got some of that over the last couple days because of your decision to close some mosques in Austria funded by Turkey. He is threatening a war between the “crescent and the cross,” and said that he will retaliate against the actions you took. Are you concerned?
It is nonsense, because what we want is for everyone who lives in Austria to respect Austrian law.... We have a vital and active Muslim community in our country. We have religious freedom – which is important. But we want everyone in our country to respect our laws, and our law on Islam says it is not acceptable to have influence [from] abroad on the Muslim community in Austria, and it is not acceptable that Islamic organizations or imams are financed from abroad. President Erdogan will have to respect our laws.
Are you concerned about retaliation?
We will not change our opinion, and we will not change our decisions.
Do you think Erdogan’s response is connected to his upcoming elections?
I don’t care about that. We will go our way, and we won’t change our decision no matter what public statements he makes.
Did you and Netanyahu discuss Turkey?
Will you say what you discussed?
You just met with Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, who is pushing for international recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. Is that something Austria might consider?
Not only he, but Bibi Netanyahu also talked with me about that. It is legally a difficult issue.