The Austrian presidential elections made headlines this week. Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, almost won the election. Thankfully, he was edged out by his rival, former Green party leader Alexander Van der Bellen. But it was a close-run thing, with only about 30,000 votes in it. Far too close for comfort.
In an increasingly fervent European atmosphere of racism directed against refugees (especially Muslims), it is a worrying development that he came so close to power. Although the Austrian presidency is largely a symbolic position it does retain certain powers, and Hofer had signalled his willingness to use them.
The Freedom Party has historical links to actual Nazis. It was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s. It's former leader Jorg Haider once praised Hitler's employment policies. But in common with other far-right parties across Europe, it has sough to "tidy up" and modernise its image.
Fascism relies on having an "Other" to demonize and slander for all the world's woes. For the German Nazis, this was "the Jews" who were simultaneously blamed for both capitalism and "Bolshevism" at the same time. The Nazi Holocaust wiped out about 6 million Jews in the death camps of the "final solution" (plus many other victims). With the destruction of so much of European Jewry, Nazism was partly successful in one of its hideous goals: to make Europe "free" of Jews.
But the ideology of fascism requires a scape goat, a "foreign" Other to deflect blame onto, and to divide and conquer. Today, it is primarily aimed at demonising Muslims. Far right movements all over the world now direct most of their hatred at Muslims. It doesn't mean, of course, that they have forgotten their anti-Semitism and suddenly become all friendly towards Jews: far from it. Indeed, anti-Semitism is still a problem. And there are still neo-nazi and white supremacist fringe groupings whose hatred of Jews seems to be the primarily motivation.
But there is a certain phenomenon in electorally-oriented European fascist groupings in recent years. Many of those groupings, such as the Freedom Party, that have attempted to move on from their neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic histories by dressing up in suits.
That phenomenon is kissing-up to Israel. One could also call this the "We can't possibly be anti-Semites: we love Israel" phenomenon.
In the UK, this was embodied by the British National Party. Nick Griffin, its ex-leader, had a period during which he claimed to stand "full square" behind Israel and its 2009 war on Gaza. But the party's anti-Semitic linage was never far beneath the surface. With the rise of the English Defence League (who had a very openly Zionism streak, and regularly flew Israeli flags during their violent street provocations directed at Muslim communities), Griffin seemed to turn against them and their "Jewish Division" (which later split from the EDL and became the Jewish Defence League UK – named after the American Zionist terrorist organization founded in 1968).
In Austria, the Freedom Party has used the same plan: trying to claim it has moved away from its anti-Semitic past by showing closeness to Israel. And the Israeli prime minister has seemingly bought into the strategy. The party's leader Heinz-Christian Strache in April paid an official visit to Israel at the inviation of his Likud party.
While there, Strache agitated against boycotts of Israel, and railed against Muslims, praising the "Judeao-Christian West" and claiming Israel as an outpost for Europe in the middle east: "If Israel fails, Europe fails. And if Europe fails, Israel fails."
Michael Kleiner, a Likud official who helped organise his visit, told the Financial Times: "Mr Strache is pro-Israel, is against the boycott, supports Israel's right to defend itself."
In fact, there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between Zionism and fascism. These far-right racist parties have a certain admiration for Israel for several reasons – often not at all the stated ones. First of all, their primary hatred in this historical moment is against Muslims – and who is better at killing Muslims than Israel? Second, the truth is these far right groups have not really ended their hatred of Jews, merely buried it below the surface. On one level, they are happy about the Zionist project, because one of its fundamental aims is to remove European Jews from Europe and send them to occupied Palestine – something anti-Semites are quite happy about, along with Zionists.
And what does Israel hope to gain from getting close to European fascists like the Freedom Party? That seems unclear. But Netanyahu and his party may well be judging, or hoping, that fascists like Strache and Hofrer represent the future of European politics. They would, after all, help them fight things like the BDS movement – the boycott of Israel.
Let's prove them wrong.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.