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Is Israel rejecting right-wing European support it can ill afford to lose?

Many in Israel are against dealing with Europe’s right-wing parties, arguing that they haven’t really abandoned their anti-Semitic past, and that Israel’s acceptance will only legitimize them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told an ethnic Hungarian audience in Romania on July 28 that “there’s a general shift towards the right in the whole of Europe,” predicting a wave of “Christian Democracy” that will sweep away the old European multicultural elites. Orbán was warmly received by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu less than two weeks earlier, the first Hungarian premier to visit the Jewish state.

Many in Israel are against dealing with Europe’s right-wing parties even if Europe’s right does have the wind in its sails. They argue that these parties haven’t really abandoned their anti-Semitic past, and Israel’s acceptance will only legitimize them. This was the main reason given at two conferences in Israel to combat anti-Semitism, in February and March, where there was near unanimity against any dealings whatsoever with Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO).

Michael Kleiner, a former Knesset Member and currently president of Likud’s Supreme Court—the Likud’s highest judicial body, which decides all intraparty matters—has worked to build bridges between Israel and European right-wing politicians. He says “today, the more malignant, the more dangerous, the more effective anti-Semitism is from the left.”

He cites as examples the ruling Social Democratic Party of Sweden, which recognized Palestine as a state, and Britain’s Labour Party leadership, which recently jettisoned parts of a widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism to allow for attacks on Israel—i.e., claiming that Israel is a “racist endeavor” and likening it to Nazi Germany.

In comparison, Europe’s right-wing parties are strongly pro-Israel, Kleiner says, rattling off a number of them, including Holland’s Party for Freedom, Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Italy’s Northern League, Austria’s FPO and Orbán’s Fidesz Party (all but one are part of ruling coalitions).

“Orbán is a friend,” says Kleiner, noting the Hungarian leader’s support for Israel in the United Nations and European Union. (A commentary on Israel’s peril in these forums is that Hungary is considered supportive for merely abstaining in U.N. votes against Israel.) More substantively, Hungary did block an E.U. resolution condemning the United States for relocating its embassy to Jerusalem.

Still, Orbán cannot shake accusations of anti-Semitism. Critics zero in on his praise of Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian leader from 1920-1944 who oversaw the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps, and his campaign against Jewish billionaire investor George Soros, which was considered anti-Semitic in tone.

Kleiner is particularly aggrieved by the way Israel treats members of Austria’s ruling right-wing coalition led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, head of the Austrian People’s Party. In June, in a sign of thawing relations, Netanyahu signaled that he would “intensify contacts” with the foreign ministry in Vienna during a successful visit by Kurz, who visited Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. Austria’s Foreign Ministry is led by Karin Kneissl. While not a member of the FPO, she enjoys strong support from the party and has made controversial statements about Zionism.

Although Kurz’s visit went a long way to ease concerns among Israelis, it did not do anything to improve their view of Kurz’s junior coalition partner, the FPO. Kleiner says Israel continues to boycott the FPO and won’t meet with the FPO’s cabinet-level ministers.

Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, speaks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum at the Jerusalem Convention Center on June 11, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The party does have a real stigma to overcome. Although a liberal party, it was founded in 1956 by former Nazis, and in the 1980s came under the sway of Jörg Haider, himself the son of a former Nazi official. In 2000, when the FPO became part of the coalition government, the E.U. imposed sanctions on Austria, and Israel recalled its ambassador.

The reaction is more modest this time, in large part thanks to the work of the FPO’s current head, Heinz-Christian Strache, vice chancellor of Austria. Though Strache dabbled in neo-Nazi politics in his youth, Kleiner says he repudiates his past, and under his leadership the FPO has made efforts to reach out to Jews.

“They are very pro-Israel,” he says.

During the Israel Defense Forces’ “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, Strache was in Israel. Kleiner notes that “he went to Sderot. He visited Israeli bases. He expressed condemnation of Hamas indiscriminately bombing civilian populations.” That Israel continues to boycott Strache, says Kleiner, is “unbelievable.”

Austrian Ambassador to Israel Martin Weiss agrees that “engagement is usually the stronger tool.”

Weiss, who is a professional diplomat and not a member of the FPO, was impressed by one act in particular by Strache. During the Vienna Opera Ball, an annual high-society event, Strache made a highly political speech in which he said he wouldn’t accept anti-Semitism in his party—and whoever didn’t like it could leave. “It caused a lot of people to swallow. He has done things like that. So I think there’s something there,” affirms Weiss.

Learning to ‘play nice’ with elements in Europe

The possibility that Israel’s behavior will ultimately alienate Europe’s right-wing is of utmost concern to Jonny Daniels, founder and president of From the Depths Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on preserving the memory of the Holocaust. He works closely with European leaders, particularly in Poland.

“If you look at this Polish government, you see more money being given to Jewish projects than ever before. You’re seeing more support for Jewish communities, more support for Jewish heritage, more support for the State of Israel, and still everyone is complaining,” he says.

Daniels describes meeting with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who revealed his shock at the level of anti-Semitism he encountered among left-wing E.U. leaders, who chastised him for supporting Israel. Daniels worries that pressure from E.U. leaders—together with dissatisfaction from the party base, who see no upside to backing a hostile Israel—will combine to soften Europe’s right-wing support for the Jewish state.

“We have to be very careful,” says Daniels. “Key European parliamentarians have absolutely mentioned this to me. Israel is going to lose support if it doesn’t learn to play nice as well.”

Daniels and Kleiner believe that Netanyahu, who also serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs, understands the situation and his go-slow approach stems from concern about backlash from a hostile media. “The media will say he’s allying with anti-Semitic parties. He expects gradually to prove that it’s not true,” says Kleiner.

Daniels agrees that Netanyahu has done much to reach out to these parties, but feels that he should move faster. Daniels blames Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Europe’s Jewish communities, which strongly resemble American Jewry in that they share a politically left-wing worldview.

The attitude of Europe’s Jewish populations makes no sense to Kleiner, who notes the issue isn’t just about Israel but also the safety of Jews in Europe. The right-wing parties oppose the immigration of more Muslims, who clearly import anti-Semitic attitudes with them, he says.

“Today, people who fight against such immigration are our friends,” says Kleiner. “Those who fight to increase that immigration are our foes.”

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