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An Austrian Minister Was Going to Make a Trip to Israel — Then Things Got Awkward Over East Jerusalem

Reinhold Mitterlehner — the Austrian minister of science, research, and economy — cancelled a visit to Israel after his Israeli counterpart insisted they meet in a disputed neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

by VICE News
Dec 4 2015, 6:12pm

Photo by Yossi Zamir/EPA

What was supposed to be a low-key diplomatic meet-and-greet between Austria and Israel has devolved into a spat over Israel's expansion into East Jerusalem, a neighborhood that Palestinians insist should be the capital of its future state.

Reinhold Mitterlehner — Austria's minister of science, research, and economy — was scheduled to be in Israel next week to sit down with Ofir Akunis, Israel's science, technology and space minister. The meeting was billed as a chat about the future of scientific collaboration between the two countries, and the two ministers were planning to sign two memoranda of scientific cooperation. 

But Austria has cancelled the meeting. The two countries could not agree on a neutral place to meet. 

Related: 1,200 Israeli Troops Raid Palestinian Refugee Camp to Destroy a Single Home

Akunis insisted that the meeting take place in the Kiryat Menachem Begin government compound, which is located in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. That's beyond the Green Line, the demarcation line dividing Palestinian and Israeli lands established after Jewish inhabitants of what had been British Mandate-controlled Palestine declared a state in 1948 and defeated the Arabs. In the last 48 years, Israel has seized territory beyond that line. Sheikh Jarrah, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, was captured during the 1967 war, known in Israel as the Six-Day War. In recent years, Sheikh Jarrah has become a flashpoint for land disputes, with Jewish Israeli families challenging Palestinian deeds on homes and, in some cases, successfully evicting them. 

Austria does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over East Jerusalem and did not want to hold an official diplomatic meeting there. Before the Austrian visit, Akunis issued an ultimatum to Austria saying that the upcoming meeting "will be held in the office of the Minister of Science or nowhere."

Mitterlehner had tried to relocate the meeting to the Israeli Knesset or the King David Hotel, both in West Jerusalem, or in Tel Aviv. On Friday, the Austrian Embassy told the Times of Israel that its officials will "never go to meetings that are outside the 1967 borders." European Union member states, as well as the United States, have all refused to hold official meetings in East Jerusalem given the territory's disputed status.

On Friday, Akunis doubled down and accused Austria of denying Israel's historical claim to the land. 

"Austria will not divide Jerusalem. With all due respect to the Austrian Minister of Science, united Jerusalem, the capital of Israel for over 3,000 years, stands above any consideration. The government complex in the east is an integral part of greater Jerusalem," he said. "If I agreed to accept the demand of the guests it would be as though I would agree to divide Jerusalem, which will never happen."

Related: Israel Suspends EU Role in Peace Process With Palestinians

Relations between Israel and the EU countries have been more and more strained of late. Last month the EU decided to label goods made in Israeli West Bank Settlements, a move that infuriated the Israeli government.

This Wednesday, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders also cancelled a trip to Israel when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to meet him in protest of the EU's decision to label settlement goods. 

Watch VICE News' documentary Occupation: Voices from the West Bank: 

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