Israel Angry Over EU Lifting of Sanctions Against Austria

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel stood alone on Wednesday when it reacted angrily to the European Union's decision to drop its sanctions against Austria. The EU imposed sanctions on Austria seven months ago to protest the inclusion in the government's ruling coalition of a party whose leader had expressed controversial views on the Nazi era.

The 14-member EU voted late Tuesday to lift the ban after a committee of three "wise men" assigned to monitor the affects of the boycott suggested that the sanctions had become "counterproductive," having led to an increase in Austrian nationalism.

According to a joint statement issued in Paris, "The measures put in place by the 14 [EU member states] were useful. They can now be lifted."

However, the statement added, the continued presence in the government of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party remained a cause for "serious concern." It was necessary to remain vigilant.

Austria, which had refused to bow to intense EU pressure, hailed the decision as a major victory. The government had refused to accept anything less than an "unconditional" end to the boycott.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel said it was "a great success for Austria."

In Israel, reaction was swift, although muted, in comparison to the response after the party entered the governing coalition. At that time, Jerusalem withdrew its ambassador from Vienna in protest.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak "condemned" the EU decision to drop the sanctions against Austria.

"They should have remained in place as long as a party with neo-fascist trappings such as the Freedom Party remains in the Austrian government," a statement from Barak's office said.

Israel initially led the condemnation of the rise of the Freedom Party and Haider last fall and was joined at the time by the EU, the US and other nations. However, this week, Jerusalem stood virtually alone.

The State Department in Washington said it would continue to raise issues of concern with Austria, but it took no position on the EU's decision.

"Israel was not surprised by the decision to remove the sanctions," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Yaffa Ben-Ari.

Ben-Ari said Israel had no plan for further diplomatic action. The country "doesn't see any room for changing or revising its position regarding the government of Austria."

Haider, whose party rose to power on an anti-foreigner and social benefits platform, was criticized for remarks he made praising Adolph Hitler's notorious SS and some of Hitler's policies - statements for which he later apologized.

His party, often accused of being xenophobic and racist, won 29 percent of the vote in last October's elections. Haider resigned as party leader as a condition for its inclusion in the Austrian government in February. He remains a provincial governor.

But his resignation was not enough for EU partners at the time. Member states froze bilateral diplomatic relations with Vienna in an attempt to drive the party from the government.

However, the boycott seems now to have backfired. Haider said the sanctions had actually given a boost to patriotism in his country.

"The sanctions were lifted to please public opinion - for the public it was clear that they were never justified," he told a press conference on Wednesday.

"[The sanctions] provoked a solidarity within the population and reinforced a feeling of patriotism," Haider said.

Israel's opposition to Haider and the Freedom Party was due to its particular "sensitivity" to xenophobia and racism, Ben-Ari said.

Hitler, the Austrian-born leader who rose to power in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, eradicated one-third of Europe's Jews in the Holocaust during the first half of the 1940s..

Unlike Germany, which has been open in apologizing for the Holocaust and in attempting to make amends, Austria has never acknowledged any responsibility.

Analysts have said Hitler's attitudes and beliefs were nurtured in a general anti-Semitic, anti-foreigner bias present in Austria at the time.

When Nazi troops invaded Austria in 1938, many Austrians welcomed them publicly as heroes. Austria was annexed to Germany until the end of World War II, then administered by the victorious Allies until 1955.