December 20, 2017 / 5:24 PM / 4 months ago

Austria's Kurz says will fight anti-Semitism after Israel voices concern

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Wednesday his new coalition would focus on fighting anti-Semitism, after Israel made it clear it would not work directly with any ministers from the far-right party now back in government.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (R) of the People's Party (OeVP) delivers a speech during a session of the parliament in Vienna, Austria, December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Kurz, a 31-year-old conservative, was sworn in with the rest of his government on Monday after reaching a coalition deal that handed control of much of Austria’s security apparatus to the anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPO). The FPO came third in October’s parliamentary election with 26 percent of the vote.

Israel reacted to the inauguration by saying it would do business only with the “operational echelons” of government departments headed by an FPO minister. The FPO now controls the foreign, interior and defence ministries, though Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl is not officially a member of the party.

“Anti-Semitism has no place in Austria or Europe. We will fight all forms of anti-Semitism with full determination, both those that still exist and those that have been newly imported,” said in a speech outlining the government’s goals to parliament. “That will be one of our government’s significant tasks.”

The FPO, which was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, says it has left its anti-Semitic past behind it, though it has still had to expel members each year for anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi comments.

It now openly courts Jewish voters, with limited success. Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, has also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (R) of the People's Party (OeVP) delivers a speech next to Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party (FPOe) during a session of the parliament in Vienna, Austria, December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

“Israel wishes to underline its total commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and commemorating the Holocaust,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a short statement on Monday in response to the Austrian government’s swearing in.

“SHAMEFUL AND SAD”

The European Jewish Congress has called on the new government to take concrete steps against anti-Semitism while taking a generally more inclusive approach.

“The Freedom Party cannot use the Jewish community as a fig leaf and must show tolerance and acceptance towards all communities and minorities,” it said on Monday.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Austria, where Adolf Hitler was born, was annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938. Next year will mark the 80th anniversary of that takeover as well as the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, which led to the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kurz said the events of 1938 were “shameful and sad”.

His People’s Party (OVP) and the FPO published a 180-page coalition manifesto over the weekend, which includes plans to cut public spending, taxes and benefits for refugees.

The OVP won October’s election with a hard line on immigration that often overlapped with the FPO’s. The issue dominated the campaign after Austria took in large numbers of asylum seekers during Europe’s migration crisis, many of them from Muslim countries.

Austria’s Jewish community of just over 10,000 is tiny relative to the more than half a million Muslims who live in the nation of almost 9 million, many of whom are Turkish or of Turkish origin.

Both Kurz and Strache have warned of Muslim “parallel societies” they say are emerging in Austria, despite there being few obvious signs of sectarian tension.

Kurz flew to Brussels on Tuesday to dispel concerns that his alliance with the far right will undermine the European Union. In their speeches to parliament, both he and Strache said they opposed Turkey joining the European Union — a position that polls show a majority of Austrians support.

“Turkey is moving in the wrong direction, which means Turkey will certainly have no future in the European Union,” said Kurz, who has criticised Ankara’s clampdown on dissent since a failed coup last year.

On Tuesday night during his first foreign visit as chancellor, to Brussels, Kurz told broadcaster ORF he would “soon” meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I hope we will succeed in dispelling the concerns that exist regarding the FPO government members,” Kurz said. “It would be in the interest of both our countries.”

Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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