Israel in a quandary over how to deal with Waldheim's election
Jerusalem — Israel is carefully weighing its response to Kurt Waldheim's election as Austria's President. The dilemma facing Israel is how to avoid dealing with the Austrian President, who has been accused of a Nazi past, and at the same time retain what until now have been generally good and sometimes important relations between Jerusalem and Vienna.
``Here is a collision between Realpolitik and justified emotionalism,'' a senior Foreign Ministry official says.
The day after Mr. Waldheim won 53.9 percent of the vote in a run-off election against a Socialist Party candidate, Israel said it was recalling its ambassador to Vienna for consultations that would last an indefinite period. Foreign Ministry sources hinted broadly that the ambassador would not be back in Vienna in time to attend Waldheim's scheduled July 8 inauguration.
Eventually, Israel must decide whether it will replace the ambassador, who was due to end his tour later this summer, or reduce its representation in Austria to the level of charg'e d'affaires.
Although one official says ``there is no doubt that [Waldheim] was a member of the Nazi Party and no doubt that he also lied about his wartime activities,'' the Israeli government appears unlikely to go much farther in expressing its displeasure over the election.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres asked the Justice Ministry several weeks ago to form a committee to look into allegations against Waldheim that have been publicized by the World Jewish Congress, among other groups. That committee will continue to meet, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, and its findings will eventually be presented to the Israeli Cabinet.
In the Knesset, Israel's parliament, there was debate Monday on a motion by Knesset member and Holocaust survivor Shevah Weiss that Israel break diplomatic ties with Austria. But such a move is considered here to be highly unlikely.
The fact is that Israel needs Austria and its relations with Austria. Vienna was the transit point for thousands of Soviet Jews who came to Israel in the 1970s. It is still the spot favored by the Soviets should the flow of Soviet Jewry resume. Austria has been helpful in the past in negotiating prisoner exchanges between Israel and various Palestinian factions.
The path the Foreign Ministry says it will try to take is one of distinguishing between the President and the nation -- not an easy task, officials concede, but one made easier by the fact that the office of the presidency in Austria is largely symbolic.
``We will deal with the political echelons of that country,'' said one official. ``We have made the distinction from the beginning -- saying that we reject Waldheim, but that this rejection has nothing to do with Austria as a country.''
Still, in a formal statement issued Sunday night, the Foreign Ministry expressed its ``sorrow and disappointment'' over Waldheim's election and said that ``until the last moment we hoped that reason would prevail among the Austrian people and that the election of a man with a past like Waldheim's as President would be prevented.''
Waldheim has consistently denied all allegations leveled at him about his wartime service with the German Wermacht in the Balkans and maintained that he omitted mention of his three years' service in his autobiography because it was not interesting. He has repeatedly said he would work to restore relations with Israel after his election.
Relations betwen Israel and Austria have frequently been bumpy. A Foreign Ministry official said Monday that the only other time Israel has recalled an ambassador from a capital as a political protest was when it called its ambassador from Vienna ``for several weeks'' shortly before the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Bruno Kreisky was chancellor then, and relations between the two nations were at a low.
Israel has always resented the declaration by the Allied Powers that Austria was the first victim of Nazism, and there remains a widespread feeling here that many Austrians harbor barely latent anti-Semitic feelings.
``The clear-cut victory of Austria's [Waldheim] . . . is certainly a true reflection of Austria's national mood today,'' fumed the daily Jerusalem Post in an editorial Monday. ``Unlike the Federal Republic of Germany, Austria has been allowed to live for four decades with the big lie that it was the first country to fall victim to Hitler's wars of conquest. There was therefore no need to try and overcome the Nazi past, belying the fact that Austria provided some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals and that little postwar Austria had some 600,000 active members of various Nazi organizations.''
But the Post concluded with a cautionary note to the government that it should ``not rush into moves which in the long run might hurt Israel's vital interests.''