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A Turn for the Better in Austria’s Relations with Israel

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Austria’s relations with Israel have taken a turn for the better, both politically and with respect to trade, according to Gideon Patt, Israel’s Minister for Commerce and Industry, who arrived here yesterday at the head of a trade delegation.

Patt, the first Israeli government official to visit Austria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, said he left for Austria with misgivings because of the long strained relations between the two countries. “But now those feelings have been replaced with good ones,” he told a press conference.

Since Chancellor Bruno Kreisky left office last year, to be succeeded by Chancellor Fred Sinowatz, Austrian-Israeli relations have improved, at least in atmosphere and the tone of talks is much more friendly, Patt said.

He noted that Sinowatz has promised that he would stress the principle of Israel’s right to exist at all his meetings with Arab diplomats, and in fact did so recently in Abu Dhabi during a visit to the United Arab Emirates. Kreisky, though Jewish, had been consistently critical of Israeli policies and maintained cordial relations with Arab countries and with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.

AUSTRIA TO UNDERTAKE NEW INITIATIVES IN THE MIDEAST

For that reason, Austrian initiatives in the Middle East were often suspect in Israel. But Austria will soon undertake new initiatives in the region. Foreign Minister Erwin Lanc told a press conference here that the government expects to increase its activities in the next few months to contribute toward an easing of tensions in the Middle East.

Lanc, reporting on Austrian foreign policy during 1983, would not specify what the new initiatives might be. But he made it clear that Austria views the Palestinian question as the basic problem to be resolved in the region and hinted that whatever new initiatives might be taken will be aimed in that direction. The war in Lebanon was a distraction, Lanc said. “Maybe now there will be a time of thinking instead of fighting.”

He stressed that for Austria to play a mediator’s role in the Middle East, it must be accepted by both sides. But more important than mediation are internal changes in the positions of both sides. “There was no movement in Israel in that respect and not enough movement on the Palestinian side, so we have to wait,” Lanc said.

He will leave next Saturday on a 10-day tour of the Arab Gulf states, accompanied by Austrian businessmen. But the main purpose of his trip will be political, Lanc said. “We want to get new information about the political views of these states that help us prepare future initiatives for the Middle East.”

EFFORTS TO ARRANGE PRISONER EXCHANGE

Asked if he would visit Israel, Lanc said he hadn’t been invited but added that such a visit would be useful even if there are policy differences. He spoke in some detail of Kreisky’s recent private visit to Egypt. He stressed that the retired Chancellor no longer represents Austria in an official capacity but he does have input with respect to policy.

Lanc hinted that Austria is continuing its efforts to arrange a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a pro-Syrian terrorist group headed by Ahmed Jibril. Jibril’s forces hold two Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Patt told reporters here that his visit is aimed at expanding Israeli-Austrian trade relations. A mixed commission will begin to function next fall when Austria’s Vice Chancellor, Norbert Steger, visits Jerusalem at the head of a delegation of businessmen and industrialists.

Austria’s trade with Arab countries has been much more extensive than with Israel. But the sharp devaluation of Israeli currency has led to an increase of Austrian exports. Patt hinted that Austria may act as a mediator to initiate trade between Israel and the Arab countries.

On another matter, he denied emphatically that Israel has been supporting Iran in its war with Iraq. “May God prevent an Iranian victory. It would threaten Saudi Arabia and Israel,” he said.

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