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Relations between Israel, Austria are expected to thaw


Relations between Israel, Austria are expected to thaw

Ariel Kahana

Could the tension that has characterized Israeli-Austrian relations since the latter government elected a far-right government a year ago under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz be coming to an end? Since Austria established its current ruling coalition, Israel has refrained from any contact with ministers from the Freedom Party over its neo-Nazi and racist past.

That includes Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who spent years working to eradicate racists and anti-Semitic members from the Freedom Party ranks, and is a fervent supporter of Israel. Still, the Jewish community in Austria are pointing out problematic aspects of the party, such as the Freedom Party student newspaper, which continues to spread somewhat anti-Semitic content.

Austria has reached out to Israel, saying it is interested in normalized relations with all components of the government. In other words, Austria wants Israel to lift its boycott on Freedom Party ministers. The subject was raised when Kurz met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in Israel some six months ago, and again two weeks ago when the two met at the United Nations.

Since the new Austrian government was elected, Netanyahu has been working simultaneously to prevent Israeli officials from meeting with Freedom Party ministers while sending envoys to Austria to find ways of establishing normalized relations with Strache, who was a vigorous opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and objects to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Israel Hayom has learned that Netanyahu and Kurz’s most recent meeting in New York yielded a breakthrough. The Austrian leader informed Netanyahu that the Freedom Party student newspaper had been shut down shortly after their previous meeting earlier this year.

Apparently, the step was taken at Kurz’s request that the party end funding for the paper. Netanyahu welcomed the move. Now that Austria has made a show of good faith, the ball is in Israel’s hands, and the prevailing sense is that Jerusalem will make its own steps towards rapprochement.

One possibility is for Israel to work with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who is not a member of the Freedom Party but was its candidate for the position. Meanwhile, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen is slated to visit Israel a few months from now, and both sides hope that visit will bring an end to the crisis in bilateral ties.

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