BERLIN, Aug. 1 (JTA) — Despite recent hints of warming, no change in the relationship between Israel and Austria is imminent, an Israeli official has said. Speculation that a change was at hand began July 24 after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a German TV interviewer that he had asked Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to consider re-establishing formal relations with Austria. Israel recalled its ambassador from Vienna in February 2000 to protest the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party as a partner in Austria’s new coalition government. However, the charge d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Vienna told JTA that no change is in the offing. “No talks are planned between Israel and Austria,” Avraham Toledo said in a telephone interview. “It is an issue to be considered in Israel, and it will not happen in a week or two.” But Ariel Muzikant, president of Austria’s Jewish community, seems convinced that change is at hand. “From Israel’s point of view it is better to reinstall an ambassador in Austria” in order to help Israel’s relations with the European Union, which have suffered profoundly since the intifada began in September 2000, Muzikant said. “This is behind the whole issue.” In Sharon’s July 24 interview, conducted by TV personality Michel Friedman — who also is vice president of the German Jewish community — Sharon dismissed the idea of boycotting Austria and said more could be accomplished through discussion and mobilizing public interest. Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel welcomed Sharon’s words, saying he had expected that a change would come. Relations between the two states have not been cut off during this cool period. This past May, Austrian Cultural Secretary Franz Morak paid an official state visit to Israel. Muzikant said time has shown that Israel was correct to withdraw its ambassador in 2000. “The situation in Austria is not really very sympathetic,” he said. Freedom Party head Joerg Haider recently “had a meeting of 50 right-wing extremists, trying to form a right-wing European movement,” he said. “On the other hand, Israel is fighting for her life. The question today is, why should Israel be the only remaining country with severed ties with Austria?” he asked. “If Europeans can accept” populist leaders such as Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, the Vlaams Blok Party of Belgium and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, “why should Israel stand alone?” But Toledo was noncommital. “We all heard what Prime Minister Sharon said on German television,” said Toledo, who has been stationed in Austria since the summer of 2001 and is rumored to be the front-runner to be the next ambassador. “He said what he said. The issue is to reconsider the relationship, and that is it.”
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.