24th Mar 2018

Orban and Netanyahu set aside anti-Semitism concerns

One might assume that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would lock horns with Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orban, whose government has recently been accused of stirring up anti-Semitic sentiments with a campaign aimed at US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros.

But Netanyahu, in the first visit by an Israeli PM to Hungary since 1989, came to the support of Orban and his campaign against Soros, a Budapest-born Holocaust survivor whom the Hungarian government accuses of bringing migrants into Europe.

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On Tuesday (18 July), Orban and Netanyahu gave statements praising the strong relationship between Hungary and Israel. They took no questions from the press.

Orban told Netanyahu that Hungary committed “crimes” against the Jews in the 20th century, when it did not defend its Jewish citizens, but that it will never again tolerate anti-Semitism.

The Israeli premier said Orban’s words had reassured him and that the Hungarian government stands with the Jewish people.

"We are aware of the past, but we must look to the future," he said.

Washing hands

Netanyahu’s visit could not have come at a better time for Orban, who used the Israeli PM's visit to counter accusations of promoting anti-Semitism and far-right policies.

In early July, Israel’s envoy to Hungary called on Orban’s government to end the anti-Soros campaign, as it could be used as a proxy for anti-Semitism.

"At the moment, beyond political criticism of a certain person, the campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” ambassador Yossi Amrani wrote in a Facebook post.

Only a day later, Israel’s foreign ministry “clarified” the envoy’s statement, saying “in no way was the statement meant to delegitimise criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organisations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”

Netanyahu’s position puts Hungary’s largest Jewish group, Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, which has pleaded with Orban’s government to halt the anti-Soros campaign, in an odd position.

At the same time, Netanyahu can use the Hungarian premier, whose country now leads the Visegrad group, to campaign for pro-Israeli policies among EU members.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu is meeting with the prime ministers of the other three Visegrad countries - the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

Poland has recently been elected into the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the next two years.

Hungary has also been a key ally of Israel within the EU.

In 2015, Budapest opposed the EU’s guidelines on the labelling of products from Israeli settlements, and - along with other member states - has repeatedly pushed for watering down statements on the Middle East peace process.

Together against NGOs

Orban and Netanyahu share a common distrust of NGOs and rights groups, and have both passed legislation stigmatising organisations that receive funding from foreign donors.

The Israeli PM also cancelled a meeting with Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, in April, because the German politician met with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers about the military’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Other Israeli rights groups critical of government policies, such as Peace Now and B’tselem, were also present at the meeting.

In February, Netanyahu also ordered to reprimand the Belgian ambassador after Belgian prime minister Charles Michel met with representatives of Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.

Hungary has recently followed Israel’s example of stigmatising NGOs critical of the government and passing legislation that limits their functioning. The European Commission launched a legal probe into the new law last week.

A lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud party said last week that he would put forward a bill called "Soros law" to stop donations to left-wing organisations that enjoy foreign funding.

Orban and Netanyahu share a nationalistic right-wing policy, and both leaders hailed the election of Donald Trump as US president.

They reportedly also share a key political adviser, Arthur Finkelstein, a US Republican political consultant who has supported their campaigns at various points in time.

In a joint statement on Monday, Amnesty International’s Israeli and Hungarian branches expressed “mutual concerns as to the shrinking space of human rights and individuals” in the two countries.

Amnesty International said both leaders “thrive on hatred towards universal human values and norms, delegitimising voices of advocates for human rights and running smearing campaigns against activists and groups”.

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