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The prevalent comparison between Avigdor Lieberman and Joerg Haider does an injustice to the Austrian nationalist whose party joined the government in the winter of 2000. Haider is far from being a righteous man, but even in his most fascist days, he never called on Austria to rid itself of citizens who’d been living in the country for generations. Also, Haider never suggested standing up legislators representing these citizens in front of a firing squad. Natan Meron, at the time Israel’s ambassador to Austria, noted that once the leader of the Freedom Party joined politics, he never uttered a single anti-Semitic statement. Meron emphasized that the leader of the Freedom Party "does not threaten the Jews."
With the entry of his party into the coalition, Haider signed a declaration promising to abide by the European principles of democracy and human rights, and to protect the rights of minorities. Prior to that, he apologized to the Jewish people for his statements that downplayed the Nazi horrors.
What about Lieberman, then? Has he accepted the article in the government’s basic guidelines that includes the commitment to "respect the civil rights of minorities and not accept any expression of racism in the country"?
Has anyone heard a word of qualification from the leader of Yisrael Beitenu about his party’s political ideals, on the eve of joining the government?
He has not apologized to Israeli Arabs, nor disavowed his statements of incitement against Arab MKs. Even after having reached agreement with Ehud Olmert about his inclusion in the government, Lieberman has stuck to his obscene views. The day after the deal, he proudly announced to the press that he had "explained" to Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, that his plans "are more humane and detailed than any other plan on offer in Israel."
There is also no comparison between the response of the Austrian people to the inclusion of the Freedom Party in the coalition, and the tranquility with which the majority of the Israeli public has received Lieberman’s appointment as deputy prime minister in charge of the most sensitive strategic issue. It is important to note that Haider himself stayed out of the government. In Israel, "peacemakers" like Amir Peretz, Ephraim Sneh, Eitan Cabel and Yitzhak Herzog went out of their way in their efforts to convince members of their party’s central committee to allow them to bring into their home an extreme nationalist.
Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, warned Austria at the time that the inclusion of Haider in the coalition will "ostracize it from the family of nations." Matan Vilnai, then minister of science, culture and sport, threatened to boycott the Austrian national soccer team. In response to the Freedom Party’s inclusion of him in the coalition, then-prime minister Ehud Barak declared that Haider was persona non grata in Israel. Jewish organizations the world over competed over the intensity of their criticism of the Austrian government.
The growth of extremist parties on the right in Europe is worrying to Israel, and justifiably so. The rising popularity of nationalists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Vadim Tudor in Romania, Anto Djapic in Croatia and Christophe Blocher in Switzerland is disconcerting to world Jewry, and so it should be. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has barred Marine Le Pen, a member of the European Parliament and deputy in her father’s National Front party, from entering the country. What will we say if European Union countries announce that the deputy prime minister is an unwanted personality in Europe?
The silence of the leadership of mainstream Jewry in the world, in view of the legitimization of a person such as Lieberman, undermines the moral high ground they hold in the struggle against Israel-haters throughout the world. If a Jewish politician who aspires to transfer an Arab minority across the border can sit in an Israeli cabinet, why should an anti-Semite not sit in an Austrian government? Let’s hear it for the Haiders.
AKIVA ELDAR writes for Ha’aretz.