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Austrian Chancellor Pays a Landmark Visit to Israel

Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky pledged on his arrival here for an official state visit that he will continue the process of reconciliation between Israel and Austria that began after the retirement of President Kurt Waldheim.

Vranitzky’s visit marks the first to Israel by an Austrian head of government and follows a long period of uneasy relations between the two countries.

The visit is being treated by Israeli officials as an important sign that ties are being renewed.

Vranitzky was greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and warmly welcomed later at a reception by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who acknowledged the “ups and downs” in Israeli-Austrian relations.

“Our common history has known hard and bitter days which we may not erase from national memory,” said Rabin. “But we must draw the right conclusions from them, and the most important is to preserve and guard the dignity of man, to extend a hand in peace and friendship, to repress rivalry and enmity.”

Rabin said that Israel appreciated Vranitzky’s “contribution to the improvement of relations between Austria and Israel, and we are convinced that your term of office will be a period of growth and blossoming of these relations between our two peoples.”

Vranitzky was the first Austrian political leader to admit his country must shoulder take some responsibility for the Holocaust.

Until Vranitzky made that declaration two years ago, Austrian public opinion held that the country, incorporated into the Third Reich in 1938, was merely a victim of Nazism.

Israeli-Austrian relations sank to an all-time low following the 1986 presidential election of Waldheim, who covered up the nature of his service in the German army during World War II.

Relations began to improve after Waldheim retired last year.

Vranitzky recently met with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat in Vienna, and there is speculation that he is delivering a message from Arafat to Rabin. But the Austrian government has insisted that Vranitzky has not come to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite his plan to meet with Palestinian leaders while here.

At his reception Tuesday, Vranitzky said peace in the Middle East is not only important to the region but also to Europe. He also said Austria has emerged from the shadow of its past, in which it caused suffering to its Jewish people.

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