JERUSALEM (Jun. 10)
Premier Shimon Peres said Monday night that the election of Kurt Waldheim to the Presidency of Austria is less a problem of Israel’s relations with Austria than it is a problem of “Austria’s relations with itself” and “with its past.”
In a televised speech, Peres said, “from my point of view the problem is not whether Waldheim was elected or not. What really worries me is the background, the accompaniment of his election. This accompaniment and background were not lacking in anti-Semitic characteristics.”
Waldheim, elected Sunday with an eight percent margin–a landslide in terms of past Austrian Presidential elections — has been accused of war crimes and there is a growing body of evidence indicating that he was at least indirectly involved in atrocities against Yugoslav partisans and the deportation of Greek Jews when he served as a Wehrmacht intelligence officer in the Balkans during World War II.
A MEASURED RESPONSE
Israel recalled its Ambassador to Vienna, Michael Elitzur, Monday, for “consultations.” But beyond that, the government’s response has been a measured one. Peres indicated Tuesday that no further diplomatic action would be taken by Israel at this time despite calls from various political quarters and in the press to break diplomatic relations with Austria.
Both Peres and President Chaim Herzog have counselled coolness and caution. Even Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader who was the most outspoken accuser of Waldheim among senior Israeli officials, was circumspect. He informed the Knesset Tuesday that he would be unable to reply immediately to nine urgent agenda motions on Waldheim’s election. He asked that the issue be deferred for a day.
Peres, in his television speech, dwelt on “the ease” with which Austria “forgives its having belonged to a camp … about which only a feeling of horror and atrocity remains, ” a reference to the enthusiasm with which Austria welcomed its incorporation into the Third Reich in 1938.
‘AUSTRIA HAS A PROBLEM’
“I want to say, without being supercilious, in my opinion, anti-Semitism is dangerous for anti-Semites,” Peres said. “Thank God we don’t depend on them any more. We live our own life here, we don’t need the approval of any Austrian on how to live or behave, and the Austrians don’t need us either in such matters.
“However, Austria has a problem. We haven’t heard a voice from there, such as were, for example heard from (West) Germany, be it of (the late Chancellor Konrad) Adenauer or of (incumbent President Richard) van Weizsaecker more recently …”
Von Weizsaecker, like Waldheim, was an officer in the Wehrmacht during the war, but unlike the Austrian President-elect, freely admitted it and has on more than one occasion expressed deep personal sorrow over Germany’s Nazi past and the Holocaust.
AUSTRIAN ELECTORATE ASSAILED
Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel, a Laborite, was for more bitter in his reaction to Waldheim’s election than Peres. “We, together with the entire cultured and enlightened world, find ourselves today shocked and astounded by the lack of sensitivity displayed by the Austrian people at this time,” he said during a plenary session Tuesday.
“I know that we must react and say what is on our mind. I hope that in our response, too, we will not forget and not let others forget for a moment that this problem is not only that of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. It is a problem of the entire enlightened democratic world . . .
“If in the center of Europe today, in one of its central states, a people could go and elect a man who is suspected — and suspicion is enough — of having collaborated with the Nazi regime, then there are serious doubts about the lessons which Europe has drawn from the accursed war which brought tragedy upon our people and the whole of Europe,” Hillel said.