Tellingly enough, neither the Israeli government nor Austria’s embassy in Tel Aviv were involved in planning Heinz-Christian Strache’s visit to Israel, which took place a few days ago and was organized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
One can understand why Strache, the leader of the far-right, xenophobic Austrian Freedom Party, is officially shunned by Israel and Austria’s foreign ministry and why Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, declined to see him during his trip.
The party’s first two leaders, Anton Reinthaller and Friedrich Peter, were SS officers during the Nazi era. The party itself is tainted by racism and antisemitism. Israel is aware of the party’s history. In 2000, Israel recalled its ambassador to Austria after the party joined the Austrian government coalition.
Strache is reportedly less unpalatable than his predecessor, Jorg Haider, who expressed admiration for Nazi Germany’s labor policies and courted Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq.
Yet in 2012, Strache posted a cartoon on his Facebook page that could only be interpreted as noxiously antisemitic. The vile cartoon featured a fat banker with a hooked nose and Star of David cuff links profiting from the financial instability roiling Europe.
Antisemites have always seized upon this revolting image to define and defame Jews.
Since then, Strache has moved away from antisemitism and forbidden it in his party. Nonetheless, antisemitism keeps popping up in his party like a poisonous weed. Last year, Strache expelled a member of the party’s parliamentary group accused of making an antisemitic comment.
“For us, it’s important to act against antisemitism,” he said recently.
Strache has also strongly condemned Islamic radicalism and terrorism and adopted a vigorous pro-Israel policy.
Having concluded that the Austrian Freedom Party is no longer beyond the pale, the Likud Party invited Strache to Israel. The invitation was issued by Eli Hazan, the Likud’s director of information and external communications, and Michael Kleiner, a former Likud member of the Knesset.
Hazan and Kleiner were presumably working on the assumption that the Likud Party and the Austrian Freedom Party share similar values. As Strache himself said, “We have a lot in common.”
If this is true, why didn’t Netanyahu issue an official invitation to Strache and why did he refrain from meeting him during his visit? The answer is clear: The optics were bad. The Austrian Freedom Party is still weighed down by an unsavoury image, and Netanyahu does not wish to be sullied it. Yet Netanyahu did not cancel the invitation.
On the eve of Strache’s trip, the Austrian daily Die Presse speculated that his motive for visiting Israel was “to make himself kosher” in the eyes of Jews and world leaders.
It’s not an unreasonable conclusion.
Nevertheless, the Likud Party myopically saw fit to invite Strache to Israel. This unholy alliance tarnishes Israel, but this seems to be of no concern to the Likud.