Netanyahu to attend anti-Semitism conference in Austria

Netanyahu’s visit to Austria, the first by a sitting Israeli premier in decades, is considered a sign of improved ties between Jerusalem and Vienna.

By Jack Gold, World Israel News 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Austria next week for a state visit, where he will meet with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, attend a conference on anti-Semitism and inaugurate a center dedicated to combating threats against Jews.

This will be the first visit by a sitting Israeli premier since the ’70s – a sign of improved ties between Jerusalem and Vienna.

“It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu for an official visit to Austria! I look forward to attending the conference together with you, PM Netanyahu!” Kurz, who heads the Austrian People’s Party, tweeted Wednesday.

Netanyahu is not slated to meet with members of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO). The Israeli government has so far boycotted Austrian government ministers from the right-wing populist party because of its Nazi past.

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

The far-right party is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, political heir of former FPO 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 maintain contacts with FPO-led ministries at the level of the civil service only.

The Knesset in April held a debate over Israel’s policy of  “non-engagement” with the FPO, during which Austrian Ambassador to Israel Martin Weiss asserted that the current government is the friendliest towards Israel since the beginning of his diplomatic career in 1990.

Holocaust monument to commemorate Jewish victims

Weiss described Austria’s economic and tourism-related ties with Israel as very strong. He conceded that it took Austria quite some time to admit 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 stated.

On Tuesday, the 31-year-old chancellor announced the building a Holocaust monument that will include the names of all the Jews murdered by the Nazis.

“The responsibility to remember the 66,000 Austrian Jews who were murdered by the Nazi terror regime and the memory of this dark chapter of our history are too important to lose any more time,” Kurz said.

Kurz, currently serving as the rotating president of the Council of the European Union, is known to be a good friend of Israel and has developed a close relationship with Netanyahu.

The Israeli leader met with Kurz on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September as well as in June, when the chancellor visited Israel, including Jerusalem’s Old City, making a stop at the Western Wall. While the tour was not a “formal” visit, Israeli diplomatic officials considered Kurz’s presence at the Western Wall “important” because European leaders traditionally avoid the holy site, which the EU claims is in “occupied territory.”