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World Middle East

Is it just a swing to the right or something very sinister for us?

  • Christian Strache after exit polls
This week coalition talks between the Austrian conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party, began in earnest. The Freedom Party’s first leader was a former SS officer and its current leader was arrested almost three decades ago at a torch-lit march with a group modelling itself on the Hitler Youth.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 02, 2017

If successful, it will be the first time since the Second World War, that a leader with Nazi links will be sitting in a European government.

I was in Austria to cover the elections and no-one I interviewed was particularly surprised by the results. Unemployment, immigration and terrorism, were their top concerns.

The Freedom Party came third with more than 27 per cent - its best showing ever - in an echo of recent successes by far-right parties across Europe. In Germany, France and Bulgaria - where an openly far-right party has been part of the government since May - more and more voters are buying into politicians’ promises to adopt a hard line on Muslim immigration and political Islam.

But when it comes to Jews and Israel, despite many of the far-right party leaders claiming to be friends, many Jewish and Israeli analysts are worried. They deem these leaders to be xenophobic and even anti-Semitic.

Before the French presidential elections in April and May, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, had to fend off accusations that two of her long-time associates were Nazi sympathisers who used to host “striped-pajama” parties.

The clothes worn were reminiscent of the clothing Jews were forced to wear in concentration camps. She has since promised French Jews that her party is “the best shield” to protect them.

In Austria too, Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party, is insisting that Nazi links from his youth have been exaggerated. So far Israeli government officials have shunned him (although he’s visited Israel at the invitation of the Likud) but Jerusalem finds itself in a quandary.

Should it engage with European far-right parties if they become a part of government? And choosing not to, which has been Israel’s longstanding policy until now, will essentially mean that Jerusalem is boycotting a friendly country.

The irony is that many of these parties express support for Israel and the rise of the Freedom Party is actually good for Austrian-Israeli diplomatic relations.

Strache has written to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pledging to move the Austrian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has visited Israel several times and declares support for Israeli settlement construction. His views dovetail nicely with Netanyahu’s.

It’s a far cry from 1999 when the very same Freedom Party became part of the Austrian ruling coalition and Israel recalled its ambassador and downgraded relations with Vienna for more than three years until the coalition fell apart. But now, two decades on, Austria is not an isolated case on the European map and no doubt Jerusalem will increasingly find herself having to deal with this dilemma in future.

Many of the experts I’ve interviewed, caution against Israel embracing these leaders and their parties. A leopard cannot change its spots, they insist.

They point out that Strache, despite all his good-sounding rhetoric, still believes Austria was occupied and a victim of national-socialism. He thus believes they cannot be blamed for what happened to the Jews. Factually, this is incorrect. These are people who are not friends of Israel and among them are clear anti-Semites, they warn.

Is it not possible, also, that they’re portraying themselves as pro-Israel to gain both legitimacy and attract support and votes from their local Jewish communities?

What’s more, a pro-Israel platform advances their anti-Muslim agenda - and this is a trap Israel must be careful not to fall into. It will not be helpful if Jerusalem is seen to have jumped on the anti-migrant bandwagon. It would also not be wise to be siding with parties that do not advance the values of a liberal democratic Jewish State.

We would do well to remember that history has shown that whomever targets one group, will sooner or later seek to harm Jews. Perhaps, for this reason, Israel has so far been mum on the topic.

But the flipside is that Israel needs all the friends she can get. The results of democratic elections have to be respected and the mood sweeping across Europe cannot be ignored.

For now, Jerusalem is most likely to wait and see how other countries like Germany, France and Britain respond and navigate a way to deal with European right-wing governments.

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

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