Israeli Ambassador Returns to Austria As Country Mends Fences with the Jews

The iciness that has marked relations between Israel and Austria for the last three and a half years appears to be thawing.

In a move that pleased both Austrian Jews and the Austrian government, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom announced this week that Jerusalem would return its ambassador to Vienna for the first time since February 2000.

“We welcome the decision,” Jewish community president Ariel Muzicant said. “What’s good for Israel is good for the Jewish community. Politically speaking, it would even have been better sooner.”

Israel recalled its chief envoy in 2000 to protest the inclusion in Austria’s coalition government of the far-right Freedom Party. The party was led by Jorg Haider, a populist notorious for playing on xenophobic fears, and who once praised Hitler’s policies.

Fourteen of Austria’s fellow European Union members imposed diplomatic sanctions on Vienna, but they lifted the strictures after seven months.

It took Israel nearly three more years to follow suit.

In the interim, Haider stepped down as Freedom Party leader and the party suffered heavy losses in elections late last year.

Shalom announced the decision to return Israel’s ambassador to Vienna during a visit to Israel by Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

It was the highest-level visit to the Jewish state by an Austrian official since 1998.

“During our meeting today, we decided to open a new chapter in our relations, a chapter that would emphasize the historic ties of friendship between our two peoples,” Shalom said.

Explaining the decision to resume full relations, Shalom said that over the last three and a half years “Austria has conducted a fair and balanced policy toward Israel, while reiterating its condemnation of terrorism against innocent people and its support for the peace efforts in our region.”

Ferrero-Waldner also had attempted to improve relations between Israel and the European Union, Shalom said.

During her meeting with Shalom, Ferrero-Waldner — who is from the Freedom Party — emphasized that Austria accepted its responsibility for Nazi crimes during the Holocaust and pledged to fight anti-Semitism.

“My country attaches great importance to relations with Israel and welcomes the restoration of normalcy to our diplomatic relations,” she said.

“Simon Wiesenthal once said, ‘There is no greater sin than forgetting.’ We shall not forget. The best way of doing this is for Austria and Israel to work together for a future without hate, anti-Semitism and intolerance,” she said.

Warm-hearted statements notwithstanding, Shalom stressed that Israel “will continue to follow events in Austria and elsewhere, and will maintain its policy of shunning politicians of any political party who espouse anti-Semitic positions or ideas.”

He said, “As the cradle and home of the Jewish people, the State of Israel has the moral obligation to fight any manifestations of anti-Semitism, wherever they may appear.”

These days, even Haider, governor of the province of Carinthia, has been taking pains to demonstrate sympathy for Jews and Jewish causes — possibly to change his image ahead of a new drive to re-enter national politics.

He recently attempted to reassume the position of Freedom Party leader.

In early July, he hosted a group of Carinthian-born Israelis who fled Nazi persecution. After the event, newspapers published photographs showing the Jewish group waving Carinthian flags and local Carinthians waving Israeli flags.

“This country is not indifferent to the fate of its Jewish citizens, even decades later,” Haider told the visitors, the Austrian Press Agency reported. Haider was quoted as saying that Austria was working to confront “the dark history of national Socialism and the persecution of Jews.”

An editorial in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz echoed Shalom’s words of caution and urged vigilance.

“Israel, which is trying to take advantage of the new atmosphere generated by the road map to improve its relationship with the European Union, decided that it could no longer ignore the developments in Austria and the world,” the editorialists wrote.

“That does not mean that Israel is ignoring the specter of Haider, who continues to threaten the integrity of the Austrian government,” they wrote. “Israel is aware that Haider will try to reap political gains out of the resumption of normal relations and is wary of Haider’s recent invitation to Holocaust survivors to visit Carinthia.”

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