Special to the JTA a Glorious Past, a Questionable Future
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Special to the JTA a Glorious Past, a Questionable Future

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Until the fierce controversy engendered by Kurt Waldheim’s wartime record broke into print, Israel and Austria had been quietly improving their relationship.

Under the leadership of former Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, Austria adopted an activist Middle East policy, championing the rights of the Palestinians and be coming the first Western European country to recognize the PLO.

During this turbulent period, Austria was critical of a whole range of Israeli policies, and Kreisky — a Jew by birth but a Socialist and an atheist by conviction — was often in the vanguard of lambasting the administration of Menachem Begin, a man he also scorned on a personal level.

After Kreisky’s retirement three years ago, and his succession by Fred Sinowatz, whose interest in the Middle East was minimal compared to that of his predecessor, the climate in Israeli-Austrian relations improved.

Austria, whose foreign policy is based on strict neutrality between East and West, changed the style, but not the substance, of its Middle East policy, lowering the harsh rhetoric but maintaining its principles intact.

With the accession of Waldheim to the Austrian Presidency last month, Israel’s relationship with Austria has been thrown off-balance again, although Austria’s new Chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, is known to have warm feelings for Israel.


To highlight its displeasure with the then President-elect’s military record as an intelligence officer in the German army, Israel recalled its Ambassador, Michael Elizur, to Jerusalem. Elizur, in an interview with this reporter as he prepared to leave Vienna, said he expected to return to Austria some time in the future — a view echoed by officials in the Austrian Foreign Ministry.

Israel’s relations with Austria began to sour on May 2, when Yitzhak Shamir, the Foreign Minister said that the election of Waldheim would be “a real tragedy from all points of view — political, diplomatic, and human.”

The Austrian response was equally sharp. Leopold Gratz, the then Foreign Minister, characterized Shamir’s remarks as an “unequivocable interference in Austria’s internal affairs.” Gratz, however, did not send Israel an official protest note, signifying his desire not to roil the waters any further.

Observers on both sides agree that the Waldheim affair has set back Israeli-Austrian relations. Before his recall to Israel, Elizur acknowledged that an “irritant” had been injected into the relationship. In a reference to the revulsion occasioned in Israel by Waldheim’s alleged involvement in atrocities against Yugoslavian partisans and civilians, as well as Greek Jews, Elizur noted: “Many Austrians haven’t appreciated the depth of feelings that move Jewish Israelis.”

Walter Schwimmer, the president of the Austrian Israel Friendship Society, and a conservative member of Parliament who recently visited Israel, said that, at present, “uncertainty” was the operative word to describe Austria’s relations with Israel. He declined to say they had been damaged.

A member of Waldheim’s People’s Party, Schwimmer defended Waldheim, whom he knows well. He said the former United Nations Secretary General had not been a member of the Nazi Party, opposed Nazi ideology and hailed from an anti-Nazi family. Waldheim, he went on to say, was not anti-Semitic. “He’ll fight anti-Semitism in Austria, and he’s interested in good relations between Austria and Israel.”

Austrian electors, he added, would have rejected Waldheim had he really been a Nazi. “Austrians voted for him because he’s a good statesman, because they wanted a political change and perhaps out of a feeling that he had been unfairly maligned.”

Schwimmer, whose predecessor, Heinz Nittel, was killed by Arab terrorists five years ago, said he realized that “we Austrians don’t sufficiently understand Jewish sensibilities with regard to the Holocaust.” What was now necessary, he pointed out, was “real dialogue.”

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