Israeli political advisor behind smear campaign in Austria
Tal Silberstein, under investigation in Israel in corruption case surrounding billionaire Beny Steinmetz, opened Facebook pages meant to undermine Sebastian Kurz, who leads the right-wing Austrian People's Party; Silberstein doesn't deny reports but says a mole was implanted in his team.
BERLIN - Israeli political advisor Tal Silberstein is behind a smear campaign that has caused a political storm in Austria just days before the general elections in the country, according to Austrian media.
Silberstein, a former advisor to Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, is reportedly behind particularly vitriolic Facebook pages, which he opened as part of his work for the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ).
The Facebook pages are not directly tied to the party's campaign, but they do target political rival Sebastian Kurz, who heads the right-wing Austrian People's Party, with content described to be "anti-Semitic and racist in part," according to Austrian newspaper Die Presse.
In an interview with Austrian media, Silberstein did not deny being behind the campaign but instead attacked his rivals and accused them of planting a mole in his team.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, who hired Silberstein, denied having any knowledge of the dirty campaign, with Silberstein himself confirming Kern had no hand in it.
Silberstein was paid some 500,000 euros for his work for the SPÖ. He stopped working with the party in mid-August, when he was arrested in Israel in connection with the corruption case surrounding billionaire Beny Steinmetz.
Negative campaigns are usually considered taboo in Austrian elections. A Facebook page titled "The truth about Sebastian Kurz," which was opened by Silberstein but made to look like a page run by the radical right-wing in the country, claimed American billionaire George Soros, a central figure in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, donated millions of dollars to Kurz's campaign.
The same page also mocked Kurz's age, presenting him as a baby. Kurz, who has been serving as Austria's foreign minister since 2013, was appointed to the role at age 27, making him one of the youngest foreign ministers in Europe.
Another Facebook page titled "We're for Sebastian Kurz" was portrayed as one run by a close associate of Kurz's party and featured posts with populist positions. For example, a photo of masses of refugees was accompanied with the caption: "Thousands of refugees are waiting in Italy and NGOs are threatening to bring them to Austria. Should Austria allow this?"
The page also posted about an opinion poll asking whether the main border crossing between Austria and Italy should be closed—a clearly populist position.
The elections are scheduled to be held on October 15. Kurz's Austrian People's Party is leading in the polls with 34 percent, compared to the SPÖ with only 25 percent.