Sebastian Kurz: Benjamin Netanyahu’s top European fan?

The Austrian chancellor is so far the only western European leader to congratulate the Israeli prime minister on his election victory a month ago

April 06, 2020 18:51

The tweet was sent by the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz on March 3.

“Sincere congratulations to Prime Minister netanyahu on his clear election victory!” it read. “I am looking forward to continuing to work together with you in order to further strengthen our excellent bilateral relations and fight anti-Semitism & anti-Zionism.”

He is the first and, to date only, western European leader to congratulate Mr Netanyahu on his March 2 win. The tweet was a sign of the close diplomatic and personal relationship between Israel and Austria’s leaders.

On a June 2018 visit to Israel, Mr Netanyahu was effusive about Mr Kurz, calling him “a true friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”

“You’ve moved our relationship, which between Austria and Israel was always good, but you are taking it to greater heights,” he concluded.

Martin Weiss, who was Austria’s ambassador to Israel at the time, agrees, telling the JC that the two leaders’ strong and fruitful relationship is of a type that “has never existed before in Austrian history”.

He points to how Mr Kurz has visited Israel many times since December 2013, first as foreign minister and then chancellor, and met Mr Netanyahu at various international forums, developing a level of trust and forging a “close political connection”.

Currently Austria’s man in Washington, Mr Weiss attributed the Kurz-Netanyahu relationship to a shared conservative, free market-oriented outlook and notes both have taken a tough line on immigration: Mr Netanyahu against migration from Africa via the Sinai and Mr Kurz following the 2015 refugee crisis.

Mr Kurz also comes from a new generation of Austrian political leadership. From the time he was foreign minister, he has taken an especial interest in antisemitism, Israel’s security, and Austria’s historical responsibility for its Nazi past.

Critical observers of Mr Kurz also see the chancellor’s political mind at work in adopting a pro-Israel position. Nina Horaczek, co-author of a 2017 biography of Mr Kurz, told the JC that coupled with his shift to the right on immigration, his politics are designed to appeal to, among others, right-leaning voters inside Austria’s Jewish community.

She also notes he has not been afraid to appear friendly with other popular but controversial world leaders like Donald Trump, whose Middle East peace plan he has publicly backed.

Mr Kurz “always backs the winner”, is Ms Horaczek’s assessment.

Mr Netanyahu, meanwhile, saw in the Austrian chancellor “a young, conservative European leader, a political animal and very skilled politician,” Mr Weiss says, “someone who doesn’t just talk and make fluffy promises but will deliver.” 

An Israeli government source told the Jerusalem Post that Mr Netanyahu views Mr Kurz as “someone Israel can feel comfortable being seen out with in public”: a conservative, pro-Israel European leader who is neither opposed to the European Union nor on the far-right.

And of course — as Mitchell Ash, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Vienna, told the JC — the two leaders also share one other characteristic: “a laser-like focus on what it takes to win and hold power in the given circumstances—whatever these might be.”

April 06, 2020 18:51

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