Analysis: Israel should rethink boycott of Austria’s Freedom Party

Until now, Israel has actually boycotted Cabinet level officials linked to the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. But that looks like it’s changing.

By Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

Housing Minister Yoav Galant recently became the first senior Israeli official to meet a member of Austria’s government with close ties to the Austria Freedom Party (FPOe).

Until now, Israel has boycotted Cabinet level officials linked to the FPOe, a partner in Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s ruling coalition. Chancellor Kurz has shown patience and understanding toward Israel’s position, given his country’s role in the Holocaust. However, he has expressed his hope to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on multiple occasions that Israel’s cold-shoulder policy might be revisited.

It appears that Israel’s position has begun to thaw. Galant’s October 8 meeting with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl was an important step. Though not an actual member of the FPOe, Kneissel was nominated by that party for the position of foreign minister.

Historically, Israel’s boycott of the Austrian Freedom Party made sense. It was founded by ex-Nazis after the Second World War. The party’s former controversial chairman, Jörg Haider, didn’t hide his admiration for Hitler, openly siding with Israel’s enemies like former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

However, since then, the Austrian Freedom Party has changed its tone dramatically towards the Jewish state. The party’s current chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, advocates strong relations with Israel and supports moving the Austrian embassy to Israel’s capital.

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Strache also has made no bones about his disdain for anti-Semitism in his party, rooting it out when it appears. His speech during the Vienna Opera Ball, a high-society event, when he declared he wouldn’t accept anti-Semitism in the Freedom Party – and whoever didn’t like it could leave – made a profound impression.

Critics have argued that the Freedom Party is using the Jewish state as a tool to appear more moderate and legitimate. Perhaps. But in a time of political correctness, it is important to repeat old truths: countries have interests, not friends. The implication of this is clear for Austrian-Israeli relations. And national interests should be the guide for Jerusalem’s policies.

While Israel no doubt would have preferred an Austrian government without the Freedom Party, Jerusalem is correct to strive for warmer ties.

Under Chancellor Kurz, Austria has emerged as one of Israel’s most vocal supporters within the European Union. Mutual interests drive this support. Austria wants to stop Islamist terrorism and mass Muslim immigration. It sees Israel, a small country like itself, as having been successful at both. Austria views the Eurocrats in Brussels, socialist, progressive, anti-Israel, as an impediment to its efforts.

The Jewish State faces many serious challenges and threats, both near and far. In a world community with many critics and vocal opponents, Jerusalem simply cannot afford to base its foreign policy on ideological purity.

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While the past must not be forgotten, Israel’s policies need to contend with current and future challenges. In this highly flawed world order, shared interests and mutual enemies should overrule dark shadows from the past.