Special to the JTA a Glorious Past, a Questionable Future

At the Austrian Foreign Ministry, in an ornate building with high ceilings once used by Hapsburg Empire functionaries, a senior official in overall charge of Middle Eastern affairs expressed optimism.

Israel, he surmised, was not interested in damaging its relations with Austria, a country that has served as a transit point for East European and Russian Jews on their way to the Jewish State and the West.

“We would welcome an Israeli attitude based on our total interests and not on one single issue,” he said. The official, formerly stationed in Ottawa, termed as “correct” Austria’s ties with Israel. Austria and Israel, he said, have “intensive” cultural and tourist exchanges, with Austrian Airlines and EI AI flying to Tel Aviv and Vienna. But as Michael Elizur, Israel’s Ambassador to Austria until he was recalled following revelations about President Kurt Waldheim’s past, said, there has been a decline in traffic since the Waldheim revelations burst forth.

According to Elizur, Middle Eastern policy under the direction of Fred Sinowatz, who stepped down as Chancellor after Waldheim’s June 8 Presidential electoral victory, was a case of “less of the same.” As he put it: “The principles didn’t change, but the heat was diminished.”

SHRILL POLEMICS OF THE KREISKY ERA

Sinowatz, who was personally well disposed toward Israel’s pioneering achievements, eliminated the shrill polemics of the Kreisky era. Kreisky, the scion of a highly assimilated Jewish family, was particularly scornful of Menachem Begin, whom he called “a shortsighted, primitive imperialist” with the mentality of a grocer.

In 1981, Kreisky compared Israelis to Germans under Hitler years. And in 1982, in the wake of its invasion of Lebanon, he attacked Israel mercilessly.

Kreisky, who once prompted Yitzhak Shamir to say that Israel could not hold a rational dialogue with the Austrian Chancellor, won power in 1970 and warmed up Austria’s relations with the Arab world.

On the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in reaction to the abduction of Soviet Jews by Palestinian raiders on the Schoenau Castle transit camp, Kreisky closed it despite a desperate, last-minute trip to Vienna by then Premier Golda Meir.

Kreisky was not enamored of the tactics employed by the Palestinians, but he increased his contacts with Palestinian leaders like PLO chief Yasir Arafat. In the mid-1970′s, Kreisky recognized the PLO as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinians, and permitted the PLO to open an office in Vienna.

Kreisky believed that Israel should withdraw entirely from the occupied areas and acquiesce to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. He also believed that Israeli settlements in those areas should be dismantled.

At the United Nations, Austria voted in favor of pro-Palestinian resolutions, and condemned Israel for its 1981 aerial destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Austria cast its ballot against the 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.

Austria, under Kreisky, pursued a high-profile policy in the belief that if the Arab-Israeli dispute was not solved, the conflict could spill over into Europe, with all its adverse political and economic results.

In keeping with this philosophy, the Austrian government contributed troops to several United Nations peace keeping forces staffing ceasefire lines on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Peninsula. In the past 26 years, some 18,000 Austrian soldiers have served in the Middle East.

Out of purely humanitarian motives, Austria, since November of 1983, has mediated three prisoner of war exchanges involving nearly 6,000 Israelis and Arabs.

KREISKY’S BASIC POLICY LIVED ON

After Kreisky stepped down, Sinowatz placed far less emphasis on Middle East developments, but he kept faith with the basic contours of Kreisky’s policy. The Austrians still regard the PLO as the Palestinians’ only representative organization, support the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state, and think that an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories is necessary.

It has been nine years since an Austrian Cabinet Minister has visited Israel, and three years have elapsed since an Israeli Minister stopped in Vienna on an official visit. Last autumn, however, Prime Minister Shimon Peres met Sinowatz at the Socialist International conference in Vienna.

TERRORIST ATTACKS IN AUSTRIA

Austria, despite its pro-Palestinian policy, has been the object of several Palestinian terrorist assaults. Not counting the 1973 Schoenau Castle incident, terrorists have chosen Austria as a venue for their attacks in four instances:

In 1975, they overran the Vienna-based head quarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, taking a few prisoners.

In 1981, they killed three Jews in an attack on a Vienna synagogue, and assassinated the president of the Austrian-Israel Friendship Society.

In 1984, they left a small bomb that exploded at EI AI’s office, hurting no one.

On Dec. 27, 1985, they murdered three passengers and wounded 47 at Vienna’s Schwechat Airport.

Virtually all the attacks have been carried out by the anti-Arafat Abu Nidal faction, observers concur.

COUNTER-ACTIONS BY AUSTRIA

By way of response, Austria — which relies on five Arab countries for some if its overseas oil supplies — has set up an anti-terrorist squad, the Cobras, and tightened border controls. The Austrians have also reduced the size of Libya’s Embassy in Vienna, and warned the Libyans they will not tolerate activities inconsistent with a diplomatic role. Recently, Austria dispatched its Minister of Interior to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Algeria in an effort to enlist the cooperation of those countries in the fight against international terrorism.

It is uncertain whether Austria has elicited Israel’s assistance in this matter.

Austria hopes that terrorists will not use its territory again in the future. But no one here can be sure of anything. Even a country as sympathetic to Arab and Palestinian claims as Austria cannot be immune to the scourge of unbridled terrorism.

NEXT STORY