Critics have blasted Israel’s plans to maintain ties with Austria’s new right-wing coalition, which features a far-right party with Nazi roots.
Although Israeli officials promised to limit contact with ministers of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), rights groups fear any involvement at all with the far-right populist outfit that advocates anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic policies could normalise xenophobia.
The FPO is a junior partner in Austria’s coalition government, headed by the right-wing People’s Party (OVP).
On Monday, Israel’s foreign ministry released a statement in Hebrew saying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “will maintain working relations with the professional echelon of the government ministries headed by a minister from the Freedom Party”.
The statement also said Israel intends to “limit” contact with ministries headed by FPO politicians and reaffirms its commitment to the struggle against anti-Semitism.
The OVP’s Sebastian Kurz, the new chancellor, said on Tuesday that he respects Israel’s decision, Haaretz reported.
Israeli politicians, such as parliamentarian Yehuda Glick and former legislator Michael Kleiner, are among those who advocate maintaining regular ties with the far-right party.
“Boycotting them because of their past is like boycotting Christians because of the Inquisition,” Glick told Israel’s Army Radio, as reported by the Times of Israel.
It is worrying to see groups in Israel cooperating with right-wing extremists
Farid Hafez, a political scientist and research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, told Al Jazeera that it “is worrying to see groups in Israel cooperating with right-wing extremists”.
“Since 2005, the FPO has systematically focused on Muslims as the new scapegoats, and we can observe a shift also by the so-called mainstream parties to the right,” he said, explaining that the FPO had previously targeted Africans, Turkish immigrants and former Yugoslav refugees.
“Although [the FPO] pretended to have left behind anti-Semitism, many of its politicians from the lower ranks are regularly standing out with anti-Semitic statements.”
Established in 1956, the FPO’s inaugural leader was Anton Reinthaller, a former Nazi functionary during World War II and a member of the SS paramilitary.
Nadia Hijab, executive director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, said Israel’s decision to maintain ties with the new Austrian coalition “comes as no surprise”.
“Israel has nurtured relations with anti-Semitic, right-wing countries and movements in Europe, such as in Hungary, either remaining silent or overlooking their use of anti-Semitic tropes,” Hijab told Al Jazeera.
The Hungarian government, headed by far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has been accused of recycling anti-Semitic tropes in its ongoing campaign against philanthropist and billionaire George Soros, who it claims has tried to encourage immigration to undermine “Christian Europe”.
“This is outrageous in and of itself, and ironic when it comes from a country claiming to be a safe haven for Jews worldwide – a country established at the expense of colonising and dispossessing an entire people,” Hijab added, referring to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.
“But Israel’s alliances with right-wing movements and countries in Europe has significance far beyond the Palestinian question,” she continued.
“In order to legalise its occupation, Israel needs to undermine the system of international law that was consolidated in the wake of World War II – a system that the Europeans are especially attached to as protection from war on their continent.”
In July, FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache announced his support for recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Although Israel has maintained that Jerusalem is its capital for decades, the international community has overwhelmingly rejected that assertion on the grounds that Israel has occupied the eastern part of the city since the June 1967 Middle East War.
The Palestinian Authority, the West Bank-based governing body, maintains that East Jerusalem is the future capital of a Palestinian state.
“Given that in Jerusalem are located the state president’s office, the prime minister’s office, most of the governmental ministries, as well as the Knesset – it is totally absurd not to locate our Austrian Embassy in Jerusalem, as we do in other capitals of other countries all over the world,” Strache said at the time.
US President Donald Trump announced his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6.
Strache has also expressed his support for Israel’s construction of Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law.
When the FPO first joined an Austrian coalition government in 2000, Israel recalled its ambassador to the country and downgraded the relations between the two countries.
Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian legislator in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, noted similarities between Netanyahu and the far right in Austria, and elsewhere.
“In fact, many Israeli ministers are more extreme than the far right in Austria,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The Israeli right is pushing for strong relations with those parties because they support Israel … and because the ideology is the same. Israel is an inspiration to extreme right-wing parties all over the world – from Europe to India.”
Zahalka argued that Israel “doesn’t care if the extreme right is against refugees, immigrants and Muslims so long as they are no longer openly anti-Semitic”.
He added: “For us [Palestinians], the struggle against racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are the same.”