Israeli lawmakers battle over ties with Nazi-linked Austrian party

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee debated Israel’s policy of “non-engagement” with Austria’s far-right Freedom Party.

By: World Israel News Staff

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee convened on Monday and held a heated debate over Israel’s policy of  “non-engagement” with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO).

Founded in 1956, FPO emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights. Its first head was an ex-member of the Nazi Waffen SS unit.

The far-right Freedom Party of Austria is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, political heir of former party head Jörg Haider, who was notorious for his anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi opinions. When the party joined the Austrian government in 2000, Israel recalled its ambassador in a diplomatic crisis that continued until 2003.

Israel’s policy since last year’s Austrian elections has been to keep contacts with FPO-led ministries at the level of the civil service only.

During the debate, which was held at the request of Members of Knesset Yehuda Glick and Ksenia Svetlova, Svetlova contended that Israel should continue its non-engagement policy with the party.

”We report on many anti-Semitic incidents in which FPO activists are involved,” she said. “This party should know that if it wants relations with the State of Israel, it must change. It is our moral and Jewish duty.”

Glick, on the other hand, argued that because Israel constantly fights boycotts against the country, it should not boycott the second largest party in Austria. He read excerpts from FPO’s manifesto, according to which the party rejects any form of violence and totalitarianism and acknowledges that all humans are born equal.

MK Amir Peretz, chairman of the Israel-Austria Parliamentary Friendship Group, called to support the Foreign Ministry’s policy of not engaging the FPO, which he said is also backed by the Jewish community in Vienna.

”It sends a message to the entire world that the State of Israel will not give ‘discounts’ to anti-Semitic parties, wherever they may be,” he explained.

Senior Foreign Ministry official Zvi Tal told the committee that “Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his office to avoid all contact with the party. We get the impression that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz understands our concerns, and his recent speech, in which he spoke of Austria’s commitment to the State of Israel and its security needs, is proof of this.”

Austrian Ambassador to Israel Martin Weiss, who was present at the debate, asserted that the current Austrian government is the friendliest towards Israel since he began his diplomatic career in 1990.

He described Austria’s economic and tourism-related ties with Israel as very strong, and stated that it took Austria a while before it acknowledged its responsibility regarding the Holocaust, as for years there was a “tradition of hiding behind the Austrian victims.”

Today, Austria recognizes its role in the Holocaust, “and this position is shared by many parties, including the Freedom Party,” Weiss said

Representatives of the Jewish community in Austria gave a presentation connecting the FPO to anti-Semitic acts, and they urged the Israeli government not to forge relations with the party.

Committee Chairman MK Avi Dichter concluded by saying that the committee would revisit the issue after the Knesset’s spring recess and will monitor the progress in the talks between the Foreign Ministry and Chancellor Kurz.

“This issue is not only the Foreign Ministry’s problem,” he said. “It is a national issue of great significance.”