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Netanyahu to meet Austrian chancellor, attend anti-Semitism conference in Vienna

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a private meeting on Monday, June 11 2018
Haim Zach (GPO)
During his visit to Israel this summer, Kurz expressed remorse for Austrian participation in Nazi crimes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to fly to Vienna later this month to meet with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in what will be the first official visit to Austria by an Israeli premier in more than two decades.

"It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu for an official visit to Austria!," Kurz tweeted Wednesday.

Netanyahu will hold a bilateral meeting with the Austrian leader and attend a "conference on the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism" hosted by Kurz on November 21-22.

Netanyahu's forthcoming visit to Vienna will be the first trip to Austria by an Israeli prime minister since 1997, when Netanyahu visited the country during his first term.

Member of parliament Martin Engelberg, a member of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s center-right Austrian People's Party (OVP), announced the Israeli premier's planned visit earlier Wednesday during a pan-European conference on anti-Semitism in Brussels.

“[Netanyahu] is going to come to Vienna in two weeks, and there will be a summit, a quite high-ranking summit...on fighting anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, also including BDS [the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement] and protecting and securing Jewish life in Austria and in Europe,” Engelberg told i24NEWS.

Ties between Israel and Austria have strengthened over the past year, despite the inclusion in Kurz's coalition government of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which has a past stained by frequent anti-Semitic incidents and instances of Nazi propaganda.

Israel's foreign ministry has maintained a “boycott” of the Freedom Party ministers, who preside over the foreign and defense ministries, since they joined Kurz's government late last year government, instead conducting all governmental matters through lower-level civil servants.

But it appears the Israeli government is eager to maintain good relations with Austria, as the reaction paled in comparison with that in 2000, when the Freedom Party first joined a coalition government and Israeli authorities withdrew the Ambassador from Vienna.

The Austrian chancellor visited Israel in June and met with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.

“It’s a very clear sign of the close friendship not only between Israel and Austria, but also on a personal level between the Israeli prime minister and our Austrian chancellor,” Engelberg said of Netanyahu's planned reciprocal visit.

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Engelberg told i24NEWS that it was the “right” of the Jewish community to decide to boycott ministers of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), but noted that nonetheless, “the relationship between Austria and Israel has never been as close as it is now.”

He added that “nobody is pressing” Israel to change its policy regarding FPO ministers.

“Austria is a member of the European Union...and whether or not the Israeli government has contact with Austrian ministers of the Freedom Party does not really bother us,” he said.

“I’m more interested that the Freedom Party really takes the right steps and we will charge them by their deeds, as we say,” Engelberg said.

During his visit to Israel this summer, Kurz expressed remorse at the American Jewish Committee's conference in Jerusalem for Austrian participation in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Engelberg said that over the past 30 years there has been a “strong decline” in what he called “classical anti-Semitism” in Austria, meanwhile claiming that levels of anti-Semitism in the country’s Muslim population were much higher than in the general population.

“We are talking about, according to the polls, a level of anti-Semitism [within the Muslim population] of 40, 50, or 60 percent sometimes, whereas in the general population we tend to come down from 30 percent to 10 percent,” he said, without citing from which polls he had drawn the figures.

Founded in 1956, the FPOe emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights.

The party, whose first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS, also drew pan-Germanists — believers in unifying with Germany like in the Third Reich — and liberals fed up with the ruling centrist establishment.

AP Photo/Ronald Zak

The party rose to prominence in the late 1980’s under Joerg Haider, the charismatic but controversial son of a former Nazi party official, positioning itself as a formidable populist force thriving on xenophobic and anti-EU slogans.

Today, the part is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, a former member of a radical student fraternity who has a past stained by frequent anti-Semitic incidents and instances of Nazi propaganda.

Strache has dismissed former associations with neo-Nazi groups as youthful dalliance and has attempted to position himself as a vocal advocate and friend of Israel.

Strache has traveled to Israel a number of times and developed ties with representatives of the Israeli right. In one of his last trips, however, late Israeli President Shimon Peres had refused to meet him.

i24NEWS correspondent Polina Garaev contributed to this report.

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