By Georgina Prodhan
VIENNA (Reuters) - The World Jewish Congress called on Austrian politicians to condemn the posting of what it called an anti-Semitic cartoon by the country's far-right leader, saying on Thursday that Austria otherwise risked losing international credibility.
Prosecutors may investigate Heinz-Christian Strache for inciting hatred over the cartoon showing a fat banker with a hooked nose and six-point-star buttons on his sleeve gorging himself at the expense of a thin man representing "the people".
The leader of the Freedom Party (FPO), the Alpine republic's biggest opposition faction, has denied that the cartoon - published on his Facebook page - is anti-Semitic.
Critics including the head of Austria's Jewish communities say the cartoon resembles Nazi propaganda caricatures of Jews in the 1930s and 40s.
Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and a debate still simmers over whether Austrians were Hitler's first victims or his willing accomplices. Austria has 9,000 Jews today, compared with more than 200,000 before the Nazi takeover.
"Clearly, and not for the first time, the FPO leader is trying to whip up anti-Semitic sentiment. His repeated denials are not credible because his words and actions speak for themselves," said World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder.
"This scandal shows that anti-Jewish resentment is still widespread, and unscrupulous politicians are allowed to exploit it for electioneering purposes. That is mind-boggling, and it could have negative repercussions for Austrian Jews," he said.
Strache, 43, wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday: "I vehemently and fundamentally reject all anti-Semitism.
"I say to all those who attempt to determine someone's origins by looking at a caricature of their nose, that this is the most deeply objectionable form of racism!"
ORIGINAL CARTOON DELETED
Another version of the cartoon - with English captions, a more bulbous nose and minus the star shapes on the buttons - also exists. Strache replaced his original posting with this version after the original provoked an outcry. (http://r.reuters.com/kyz22t)
The Vienna prosecutor's office is considering launching an investigation into whether the posting of the cartoon broke Austrian anti-hate laws. A spokesman said on Thursday a decision would be made towards the end of next week.
The affair has provoked criticism from some Austrian politicians, but Lauder, a U.S. billionaire and the son of cosmetics company founder Estee Lauder, demanded that Austrian leaders ostracize Strache and his party.
"If Austria doesn't want to lose its credibility on the international stage, the leaders of the mainstream parties must sideline Strache and his FPO," he said.
A spokesman for Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat who governs with conservative coalition partners, noted that justice authorities were already examining the case.
"The chancellor has already said many times that he rigorously rejects any form of anti-Semitism, racism and incitement to hatred. This attitude of course still holds for all cases," he said in an email.
Opinion polls show the FPO, which wants to split the euro zone into strong and weak members and campaigns against immigration especially from Muslim countries, gets around 21 percent support from voters ahead of elections due next year.
The FPO's inclusion in a conservative-led government in 2000, when it was led by rightist firebrand Joerg Haider, elicited international outrage and a brief period of European Union sanctions.
Strache, an ex-dental technician, stirred controversy in January by refusing to apologize for likening anti-fascist protesters to a Nazi mob and his own supporters to Jews after Freedom party members were targeted by a mob of protesters as they arrived at a right-wing ball.
(Additional reporting by Michael Shields; editing by Mark Heinrich)