NEW YORK, Feb. 2 (JTA) Israel has threatened to recall its ambassador to Vienna if Austria’s president approves a coalition that includes far-right leader Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party.
“If such a coalition arises, there is no place for an Israeli ambassador in Austria period,” Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told Israel Army Radio on Wednesday, adding that Israel must be at the forefront of opposition to such a development.
His comments came after Haider and the head of Austria’s People’s Party, Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schussel, agreed the night before to form a coalition government.
The move is now subject to the approval of Austrian President Thomas Klestil, who announced Wednesday that he had little choice but to approve the coalition.
If Klestil were to refuse and call for new elections, it is widely believed in Austria that Haider could win that vote and become the nation’s next chancellor.
Several Jewish groups have weighed in with sweeping condemnations of any Austrian government that includes Haider’s party.
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center was among those expressing “grave concern” about such a possibility.
In a letter to Klestil, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center’s dean, said Haider had visited the center’s Museum of Tolerance twice to demand that his photo be removed from the museum’s “Demagogue Wall.”
Haider was informed that “the only way the photo would come down was if he changed his policies and began telling the truth about the SS and National Socialism and stopped his attempts to curry favor with extremists,” Hier said.
Haider’s party came in second in last October’s elections in Austria, capturing just over 27 percent of the vote. It was the best showing by a far-right party in Europe since the end of World War II.
Haider’s anti-immigrant stance and past comments praising Hitler and the SS prompted the European Union earlier this week to state that it would isolate Austria if the Freedom Party joined the government.
The Austrian government, in a formal statement, objected to the E.U. threat.
“Austria is a stable democracy where human rights are guaranteed by the constitution and protected by an independent judiciary,” an Austrian spokesman said. “Austria is a tolerant country in which there is no place for xenophobia and discrimination against foreigners.”
The United States has meanwhile threatened to re-evaluate its relations with Austria if Klestil approves the new coalition.
“We have made clear that we have real serious concerns about some of the positions taken by the Freedom Party,” David Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Tuesday.
Faced with international criticism, Haider has for years tried to rehabilitate his image.
During one of his frequent trips to the United States, Haider caused a controversy when he visited Capitol Hill in June 1994 and met with several congressmen.
That visit also included meetings with State Department officials and a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In an interview with JTA at that time, Haider defended his record and derided his critics as “erroneous” and “unfair.”
Despite widespread news accounts that Haider has met with German neo-Nazi leaders, Haider categorically denied any contacts with “these types of people.”
Reacting to his two-hour visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Haider said, “I think that even those individuals who don’t know much about history will realize that we must do everything to enforce tolerance, everything to enforce human rights and everything to strengthen democracy.”
Haider’s father reportedly traveled to Munich in 1933 with Adolf Eichmann and Alois Brunner as part of the so-called Austrian legions.
When asked about the impact his family history has had on his political and personal life, Haider told JTA that his political activity has been shaped by his belief that “we must do everything to prevent from ever happening again a similar racist regime, a totalitarian regime as the Nazi regime was.”
Haider said he is not a Holocaust denier. “We had a regime that committed murder on an industrial scale 5, 6, 7, 8 million people.
“The numbers are not important. It is awful enough if it happens to one person.”
(JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)