Cablegate: Austrian Reactions to the Lebanese Crisis

Published: Tue 1 Aug 2006 03:40 PM
DE RUEHVI #2313/01 2131540
P 011540Z AUG 06
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: (A) VIENNA 2295 (B) VIENNA 2256
1. (SBU) Austrian leaders remain divided over whether the country
should participate in a UN-led intervention force in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, public opinion, outraged over the death of an Austrian UN
observer and the civilian casualties in Lebanon, is clearly tilting
against such engagement. Defense Minister Platter, reacting to
calls that Austria should withdraw its peacekeeping troops
altogether from the region, stressed that the country's principal
commitment remains unchanged. On the diplomatic front, Austrian
Foreign Minister Plassnik summoned Israel's ambassador to Austria to
express her "outrage" over the killing of the UN observers. The
junior coalition partner BZO and the right-wing Freedom Party have
called on the GOA to "send the Israeli Ambassador home." So far,
Austria has pledged 500,000 Euros in aid to Lebanon. On July 28,
two demonstrations took place in Vienna against Israel's war against
Lebanon. End summary.
President, Chancellor Disagree Over Intervention Force
--------------------------------------------- ---------
2. (SBU) In an interview with the news daily "Salzburger
Nachrichten" on July 25, Austrian President Heinz Fischer (SPO) said
that Austria could conceivably contribute peacekeepers to a future
UN-led protection force in Lebanon. Shortly afterwards, however,
Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel (OVP) expressed strong reservations
against such participation and said that Austria's multiple
peacekeeping missions were already stretched thin due to its
commitments in the Golan Heights (370 peacekeepers in UNDOF) and in
the Balkans (about 800 blue helmets). Schuessel's foreign policy
spokesman, Michael Spindelegger, and a chorus of other party
spokespeople expressed similar reservations.
Outrage Over Death of UN Observer and Civilian Casualties
--------------------------------------------- -
3. (SBU) Two recent incidents in Lebanon continue to dominate
public discourse in Austria: the July 26 death of four UN
peacekeepers, including 44-year-old Austrian Major Hans-Peter Lang,
and the attack Sunday in Qana and the subsequent civilian
casualties. (COMMENT: The GOA has not yet officially identified the
body of the Austrian peacekeeper. He was part of three Austrian
UNTSO monitors in South Lebanon. The UN temporarily removed the
remaining two observers from their posts. END COMMENT.)
4. (U) Austria reacted strongly to the death of the four UN
peacekeepers. Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik (OVP) called her
Israeli counterpart, Tzip Livni, on July 27 and also summoned the
Israeli Ambassador to Austria, Dan Ashbel, to convey the "outrage of
the Austrian Government" over the "unacceptable attack." Plassnik
demanded "immediate and comprehensive clarification" of the
incident. On July 31, Ashbel spoke with journalists and defended
Israel's actions in Lebanon. He said the civilian deaths in Lebanon
amounted to a "plus in the PR war" for Hezbollah. Ashbel held
photos, according to press reporting, which he claimed showed
civilian buildings in Qana being used as launch pads by Hezbollah
for rocket attacks. He implied that the UN was partly to blame for
the deaths of the four peacekeepers for sending unarmed observers
into a war zone. He criticized the European Union for not adding
Hezbollah to its terrorist list.
5. (U) On July 31, Defense Minister Guenther Platter (OVP) reacted
to several statements across the political spectrum, which
questioned the wisdom of Austrian participation in peacekeeping
missions. He reconfirmed Austria's unwavering commitment to UN
peacekeeping operations.
6. (U) Similarly, the news about civilian casualties from Israeli
bomb attacks on the town of Qana triggered sharp words of criticism
from the foreign ministry, as well as from the body politic and the
Austrian press. FM Plassnik called the incident "inexcusable" and
said she was deeply shocked by events in Qana and by the "incredible
suffering of defenseless people." Plassnik added that, "it is
unacceptable that Israeli air raids, whose main victim is the
civilian population, are repeatedly described as errors and
misunderstandings." Plassnik called for an end to the "blind
violence" and appealed to both Israel and Hezbollah to cease their
attacks and stop resisting international efforts for an immediate
ceasefire. Plassnik will attend the ad-hoc meeting of EU foreign
ministers in Brussels on August 1.
Political Party and Jewish Community Reactions
--------------------------------------------- -
VIENNA 00002313 002 OF 002
7. (SBU) The head of the junior coalition partner BZO, Peter
Westenthaler, called the July 26 attack on the UN observer post "a
detestable assassination," while de-facto BZO leader and Carinthian
governor Joerg Haider railed against the U.S. and Israeli "war
criminals" and called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to
Austria. Social-democratic spokesman Caspar Einem noted that an
army "capable of target killing should be abl to distinguish a
clearly designated UN post fro a Hezbollah position." SPO MEP
Hannes Swoboda ttacked the U.S. for "accepting Isral's military
intervention without any criticism." The right-wing opposition
Freedom Party pressed the government to suspend diplomatic relations
with Israel.
8. (SBU) The Austrian Jewish Community expressed "deep regret" over
the "tragic accident" on July 26. In an interview with "Der
Standard," Ariel Muzicant, President of the Austrian Jewish
Community, fired back at the BZO and FPO by calling their statements
against Israel a "disgrace to Austria." At the same time, Muzicant
said he regretted the deaths of the UN observers and demanded a full
investigation. He added that a UN presence in Lebanon, however,
only made sense if it is armed and has a clear mandate.
9. (U) On July 28, hundreds of people, in two separate
demonstrations, protested in Vienna against Israel and the war in
Lebanon. The police, according to press reports, estimate that 900
people joined the demonstration organized by the Austrian Islamic
Community. About 150 people joined a protest organized by left-wing
activist Thomas Langthaler, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Vienna
(Ref A).
Austrian Relief Efforts
10. (U) In other developments, the GOA last week pledged 500,000
euros in aid to Lebanon (Ref B). Austrian media are also reporting
on a private Austrian-Syrian relief initiative, which a Syrian-born
hospital director in Melk, Abdulrahman Aburumieh, is organizing.
Aburumieh is collecting medical supplies, which Syrian Air is
reportedly flying twice a week from Vienna to Damascus. According
to Aburumieh, the supplies are then trucked to refugee camps in
Syria and northern Lebanon. Aburumieh, according to press reports,
said there are three Austrian doctors working with the Lebanese Red
Cross, the Red Crescent, and the Austrian relief organization
"Hilfswerk" out of Damascus. He said his relief effort does not
have access to Southern Lebanon.
11. (SBU) Austria's outrage over the death of the four UN
observers, in particular, and against the Israeli campaign in
general, should be seen in the context of the country's decades-old
commitment to UN peacekeeping, its proud identity as one of three UN
sites, and its high regard for UN policies in general.
Additionally, Austria, while carefully crafting good relations with
Israel in the 1990s, has a record of pro-Palestinian/pro-Arab
policies ever since the late SPO Chancellor Kreisky opened up a
dialogue with the PLO in the 1970s amid international protests.
These national parameters set the framework for the current
political and public outrage over what a majority of Austrians
increasingly sees as Israel's disproportionate campaign in Lebanon.
The media, which have been particularly careful to appear non-biased
so far, are increasingly embracing emotional reporting about
civilian victims in Lebanon. Moreover, with the campaign for
national elections October 1 around the corner, the populist parties
are competing to echo public anger over the killing of the UN
monitors and the latest civilian casualties in Qana.
View as: DESKTOP | MOBILE © Scoop Media