June 24, 2010 | Quote

Austrian Chancellor to Arrive in Israel

Social Democratic Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann is slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday. Faymann will be the first foreign head of state to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu since Israeli commandos raided a flotilla headed for Gaza on May 31.

Chancellor Faymann said on Tuesday that new regulations regarding goods delivered to Gaza are “a positive step.” He added that the “peace process will continue” and “provisions for the population” in Gaza are part of the process.

According to Ariel Muzicant, the Haifa-born head of Austria’s Jewish community, Chancellor Faymann resisted pressure from Social Democratic party members to pull the plug on his diplomatic trip to Israel because of the outbreak of violence aboard the vessel Mavi Marmara. Muzicant, a member of the Austrian Social Democratic party, will accompany Faymann on his whirlwind tour of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Chancellor Faymann’s packed two-day visit includes meetings with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The thorny issue of rising Austrian-Iranian trade has flared up over the last few months, and the role of Austria as a non-standing UN Security Council member, will also play a role in Austrian-Israeli bilateral relations. Austrian exports to Iran climbed by almost six percent in 2009, resulting in 350 million euros worth of high-tech equipment for Iran’s infrastructure. Austrian banks such as Raiffeisen Zentralbank, the country’s third-largest bank, are still active in Iran. According to media reports, Austrian banks have absorbed many of the financial transactions of European banks which have walked away from Iranian business.

When asked about Austrian banks supporting Iran’s government, Leo Szemeliker, Chancellor Faymann’s spokesman, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that the Austrian National Bank shut down its Iran operation.

He said that “in the past there were queries from Israel and the United States” regarding the Austrian energy giant OMV and the Austrian National Bank. OMV has imposed a moratorium on its gas and oil deals with Iran. Szemeliker wrote in an e-mail that Raiffeisen Zentralbank still has “leftover business” with Iran.

Kathrin Polster, a spokeswoman for Raiffeisen Zentralbank, told the Post on Tuesday that transactions with Iran have been “strongly reduced.” When asked if the bank plans to sever its ties with Iran, she said it “is going in this direction.” Polster added that “the bank has pro-actively always gone to the US authorities with respect to sensitive questions, in the past,” and sought “dialogue about how to best support democracy, peace and freedom.”

When questioned about Austrian reluctance to place the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the European Union terror list, Faymann’s spokesman said that “I can only confirm… that discussions on the European level are taking place.”

Samuel Laster, a veteran observer of Austrian-Israeli relations and editor-in-chief of the popular Vienna-based online Jewish news site Die Jüdische, told the Post “Austrian-Israeli relations are marked by ritual. Yad Vashem and [Theodor] Herzl memorials are nourished with Austrian money. Austria is known in Jerusalem as ‘Israel-friendly.’

“Electoral behavior and a more ‘Arabophile’ line, a la Kreisky, are still present in the Alpine republic,” he added.

Bruno Kreisky was Austrian Chancellor between 1970-1983. Though he was born into an Austrian Jewish family and escaped Nazi persecution, he had frosty relations with the State of Israel and was widely considered to have fostered a pro-Arab foreign policy.

Faymann is set to visit the burial site of Herzl, the Austrian-Jewish founder of modern Zionism, and Yad Vashem on Wednesday. Pre-Holocaust Austria had a Jewish population of 200,000. While 120,000 Jews were able to flee Austrian Nazism, Austrian fascists went to great efforts to help Germany murder 65,000 Austrian Jews. Today there are roughly 7,500 official members of the Austrian Jewish community.

A series of pro-Hamas demonstrations in early June in Vienna, where signs reading “Hitler wake up” and other posters equating Israel with Nazi Germany were displayed, prompted criticism of a lax policy toward rising anti-Semitism in Austria.

Laster, who appeared in Austria’s ORF-TV’s news talk show Im Zentrum in early June to discuss Hamas, told the Post that “In Israel, there is increasing concern about Vienna as Hamas’s control center in Europe. It is mainly [based on] accounts in Vienna.”

Laster said city councilman Omar al-Rawi from the Social Democratic Party stoked anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments at a rally against Israel. “A legal complaint has now been lodged against al-Rawi because of a sentence in which the councilman called for ‘continuation of the struggle’ of the nine dead activists on the Mavi Marmara. This puts a new strain on an otherwise good relationship,” said Laster.