Israel and Jewish organizations adopted a wait-and-see posture Tuesday following the resignation of Joerg Haider as leader of Austria’s rightist Freedom Party, even as Haider’s successor vowed to prove wrong critics of the party.
“I don’t see any racism or xenophobia in the party,” Susanne Riess-Passer told The Jewish Week by phone from Vienna. “We have a good program and we will succeed in acting according to our program. I’m sure that many critics will be ashamed in the end.”
Riess-Passer, who also serves as Austria’s vice-chancellor, charged that Haider’s critics had “hounded him out” as chairman of the party he has led since 1986.
“What happened in the last weeks was like a worldwide witch hunt,” she said. “They were creating something like a monster out of him. I don’t think that was the cause of his decision, but it was one [reason].”
Riess-Passer said that although Haider will no longer head the party, he will continue to serve as governor of the southern province of Carinthia and work with her.
“We’ve been a team for 13 years now,” she said. “The team will not be broken. He is one of the most prominent politicians we have and we will work together.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he viewed Haider’s action as a “tactical move,” nothing more than part of the “ ‘very smart’ politics he is engaged in.”
“He sees that everybody is blaming him for what is wrong with Austria, so he removes himself as head of the party,” said Foxman, who spent two days in Vienna last week meeting with several political leaders, but none from the governing coalition for fear of “legitimizing the government.”
“Everybody we met — from cab drivers on up — we asked one question, ‘Is Haider amenable to having an epiphany and to becoming a true democrat?’ Everybody said no. He is an opportunist who will tell you what you want to hear … and turn around the next day and explain it away, apologize or say the exact opposite. This is unfortunate because he is one of the more charismatic figures on the Austrian scene.”
In his meetings, Foxman said he stressed the need for Austrians to stop “seeing themselves as victims and begin dealing with the true issue — the emergence of racism and xenophobia in their society.”
He called Haider’s entry into the government “a wakeup call” for Europe to seriously confront these problems.
The European Union virtually cut off relations with Austria since the new government was formed, and has not changed its position even with Haider’s departure.
Haider has come under attack because of past comments praising some Nazi policies, for which he has apologized. His Freedom Party maintained an anti-immigration plank until joining the coalition government.
Despite Haider’s surprising resignation this week, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said Israel would not return its ambassador to Vienna. The envoy was withdrawn the moment the Freedom Party entered the government Feb. 4.
“From our point of view that changes nothing,” said Levy, “insofar as [Haider’s] party — with what it represents and its ideology — remains the main voice of the Vienna government.”
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Haider’s move was a “step in the right direction” and that the U.S. would “continue to closely watch the actions of the new Austrian government.”
Bobby Brown, the adviser to Sallai Meridor, co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said Jewish groups also were weighing what Haider’s decision would mean. They have refused until now to accept Austria’s offer to negotiate all Holocaust-era claims, something the former Austrian government declined to do.
“Before anything can be done, the personalities of the Freedom Party have to be examined,” he said. “Haider was the public image of the problem, but if the party follows his beliefs and dictates, it would be problematic to deal with it.”
He said representatives of the Conference on Jewish and Material Claims Against Germany and Austria, as well as the WJRO, would meet March 16 in Jerusalem to decide whether to open reparations talks with the Austrian government.
Meanwhile, several lawyers for survivors who were forced to perform slave labor for Austrian companies during the Holocaust met last week with the newly appointed head of a special task force assigned to deal with slave and forced labor reparations.
Edward Fagan, one of the lawyers present, said Maria Schaumayer was recently given the authority to negotiate in behalf of state-owned or operated businesses.
“This is a big step because once the government is on the hook for one type of human rights violation, it will be on the hook for all of them,” the Manhattan attorney said.
Fagan said there would be a meeting in Vienna March 15 with lawyers for survivors and government representatives.