VIENNA, Aug. 17 (JTA) — Right-wing Austrian firebrand Joerg Haider has emerged with a vengeance in the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, calling Vienna’s top Jewish leader a “Zionist provocateur” and demanding the ouster of Israel’s ambassador. Commentators agree that Israel’s monthlong war with the Lebanese terrorist group emboldened the extreme-right segment of Austrian society that Haider represents, which is willing to use any pretext to fuel anti-Jewish sentiment. Though a cease-fire took effect in the Middle East this week, the public mood in Austria, as in much of Western Europe, was decidedly against Israel’s military action in Lebanon because of the death toll of Lebanese civilians. Austrians also were outraged by the killing of an Austrian peacekeeper when Israel bombed a United Nations observation post last month. Despite the war’s end, both issues are likely to figure in right-wing parties’ populist rhetoric ahead of Oct. 1 national elections, as right-wingers want Austria and the European Union to take a more critical position toward Israel. In addition, the war cast Austria’s small Jewish community of 10,000 as stand-ins for Israel, making local Jews a target for those who condemn Israel’s treatment not only of the Lebanese but also the Palestinians. Thus the war is likely to have some long-term consequences for Austrian attitudes toward Israel, and even for Jews living in the country. “People are very critical of Israel,” said Markus Bernath, foreign politics editor of Der Standard, one of Austria’s biggest dailies. “They don’t understand why this huge-scale war started.” Ariel Muzicant, chairman of the Jewish community of Vienna, where nearly all of the country’s 10,000 Jews live, steadfastly and stridently supported Israeli policy in the media. His defense of Israel not only earned him the antipathy of his usual foes, but also raised eyebrows among a small contingent of Jews who questioned the morality of Israel’s action and its possibility of success. Muzicant recently told the Wiener Zeitung newspaper that “anti-Semites” were using the “tragedy in the Middle East” to accuse Israel of war crimes, and that these same people viewed the surrender of the Nazis as the start of Allied “occupation.” The comments were a clear dig at Haider, governor of Corinthia province and head of the Alliance for the Future of Austria. Haider shot back that Muzicant was among the “Zionist provocateurs in the West who defend the murder of dozens of children and hundreds of civilians,” adding that the “warmongers in Israel” should be put on trial. A member of Haider’s party in the province of Styria earlier condemned Muzicant for not apologizing to Austria after the U.N. soldier was killed. Haider’s tirade was seen as pre-election populism ahead of October’s election, as his party is polling at only 3 percent. Haider’s former and more popular group, the extreme-right Freedom Party, is in the government, and its head also has called for the ouster of the Israeli ambassador. Andreas Molzer, a Freedom Party member in the European Parliament, began hanging the Palestinian flag outside his home in Vienna after the Israel-Hezbollah battle began. But do these politicians have sway over the general public? Based on current polls, Muzicant estimated that 75 percent of Austrians opposed Israel’s alleged “over-reaction” in Lebanon, but only 5 percent to 7 percent support the extreme-right parties. Israel’s ambassador to Austria, Dan Ashbel, said Austria was no different than any other E.U. state in that “reaction is dictated on the premise that all conflicts must be solved in negotiations and talks. This is why the European public and European politicians have little understanding of armed conflicts, whether they are in Sri Lanka or Israel.” Doron Rabinovici, a well-known Viennese writer, said Austrian media’s portrayal of Israel as the aggressor had helped to fuel “latent anti-Semitism, which is a widespread public phenomenon. There is this sentiment, ‘The Jews are not better than the Nazis were.’ ”
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Dinah Spritzer is JTA's correspondent in Prague. She has been covering the former Eastern European bloc since 1990 and currently serves as the news editor of The Prague Post. The former Europe editor for Travel Weekly, she also contributes to several other publications, including The Independent on Sunday, Conde Nast Traveler and several guidebooks on the Czech Republic.