Opinion: Israel and Austria – a pragmatic alliance

In an imperfect world, the recently strengthened ties between Austria and Israel exemplify the need to shed ideological purity in favor of pragmatism.

By: Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

During his recent visit to Israel, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz expressed understanding for Israel’s challenging security situation.

”You live in a dangerous neighborhood and your neighbors are not like ours….Lichtenstein or Switzerland,” Kurz said.

While stating the obvious, his words were nevertheless remarkable because they challenged established European policies towards Israel and the Middle East. Much of the European Union’s (EU) criticism towards Israel is rooted in a fantasy that what works in a post-1945 democratic Europe also works in a totalitarian and Islamist Middle East.

The political ascent by European far-right parties has led to divisions within Israel and the wider Jewish world. On one hand, far-right parties in Austria, Hungary, Denmark and Sweden have emerged as vocal supporters of the Jewish state within the EU. On the other hand, these anti-immigrant and anti-Islam parties often have troublesome histories that include Nazi ties.

Many liberal Jews and non-Jews argue that Jerusalem should not have friendly relations with controversial right-wing parties. However, the critics are missing the point.

Countries are mainly in the business of interests, not friendships. As an embattled democracy surrounded by aggressive neighbors and facing a hostile world opinion, Israel needs to build ties with allies worldwide.

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The recently strengthened ties between Austria and Israel exemplify the need to shed ideological purity in favor of pragmatism in an imperfect world.

Austria’s conservative chancellor stands out as one of very few European leaders who calls a spade a spade when it comes to Israel and the Middle East. Unlike the prevailing political correctness in Paris, London and Brussels, the new government in Vienna articulates a refreshing understanding of Israel’s security challenges in a hostile region. Kurz does not hide the fact that dealing with Iran and Hamas is very different from dealing with Switzerland or Denmark.

It would be politically foolish to give a cold shoulder to an emerging European ally like Austria.

Kurz is certainly no anti-Semite and his conservative People’s Party does not promote neo-Nazism. However, as a result of a fractured Austrian parliament, the government led by Kurz does include the controversial Austrian Freedom Party with its undeniable Nazi past.

However, this does not mean that Israel embraces neo-Nazis.

In 1999, Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna when the Austrian government included the Freedom Party led by the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi Jörg Haider. At the time, Haider also expressed support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. By contrast, Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party’s current head, has expressed strong support for Israel and urged Vienna to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

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Critics have argued that several of Europe’s far-right parties are currently seeking to rebrand themselves as more moderate by expressing support for Israel. However, the current Austrian government has taken responsibility for Austria’s Nazi past and has vowed to combat anti-Semitism. While Israel would have preferred an Austrian government without the Freedom Party, Jerusalem has to deal with the imperfect reality and not wishful thinking.

Like Jerusalem, Austria and Hungary oppose Islamist extremism and EU dictates.

The political map of Europe is shifting rapidly. Liberal parties that used to be pro-Jewish and pro-Israel are increasingly becoming hostile towards the Jewish state and the Jewish people. The current Socialist Swedish government and Britain’s leftist opposition headed by Jeremy Corbyn are no friends of Israel. If pragmatism strengthened Saudi-Israeli ties, it can certainly strengthen Austrian-Israeli relations as well.