Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left, shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to meeting of Netanyahu and the Visegrad Group's (V4) Prime Ministers in the Pesti Viga Balazs Mohai/MTI via AP

AnalysisSplitting the EU: Israel’s Tightening Alliance With Central Europe’s Nationalist Leaders

Israel has been exploiting this internal, complex and delicate European dissent in recent years in order to change the way decisions about its policies are made in the EU

The official signal was sounded a year ago, in mid-July 2017. In an incident involving a microphone left open – it was not clear whether this was deliberate or not –  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was heard sharply assailing the European Union during a closed meeting held in Budapest with the prime ministers of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a group of countries known as the Visegrad Group, or the V-4. “The EU is the only international organization which predicates its relations with Israel – which provides it with technology – on political considerations,” said Netanyahu at the time, supposedly for the ears of these leaders only. However, his words were clearly heard over earphones handed out to journalists moments before they were cut off: “We have special relations with China and they don’t care about political issues. Modi told me he has to look after the interests of India; Russia doesn’t set political conditions and Africa doesn’t either. Only the European Union does – it’s crazy. It’s contrary to European interests.”

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This was the first visit to Hungary by an Israeli prime minister since relations between the two were resumed. The scene in Budapest, with Netanyahu starring as the guest of honor of a group of countries considered flag-bearers of ultra-nationalism within the EU, was a forerunner of things to come: a gradual and systematic warming of Israel’s partnership with these countries in the international arena; a move designed, among other goals, to erode the consensus among EU members regarding the Palestinian and Iranian issues. Indeed, Netanyahu asked his counterparts to help him in facing EU institutions. “I propose that you transmit a message to your counterparts in Europe,” he said. “Don’t undermine the only country in the region that looks after Europe’s interests. Stop attacking IsraelEurope undermines its own security when it undermines Israel, due to a crazy attempt to impose political conditions.” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban intervened, saying with disdain that “the EU sets conditions for those who are already members, not just for those outside it.” Netanyahu responded sharply: “Europe needs to decide whether it wants to live and prosper, or to disappear.”

Exactly a year after that meeting, Orban is planning a reciprocal festive visit to Israel. According to the Foreign Ministry, this will take place between the 18th and 20th of July. Like any other official visit at this level, it  is expected to include a visit to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat coordinated the details of the visit while at a meeting with his counterparts in the V-4 group. The group is considering holding its next meeting of leaders in Israel, which isn’t even a member state.

In tandem with the upgrading of relations with Israel, there is growing friction between central European states and the EU. This revolves mainly around the issue of migrants. Tensions reached new heights this month over a compromise on closing the EU’s external borders and the establishment of screening centers for migrants. The measures were opposed by Germany, but strongly promoted by Hungary and Poland.

These two countries, led by ultra-nationalist right-wing leaders, have been challenging the EU in recent years, using the massive wave of migration in 2015 and the rise in global terror to cast doubt on the common liberal values on which the EU was founded. Hungary, led by Orban, is the extreme symbol of the opposition. During his three terms in office Orban has led a campaign to restrict democracy in his country through a legislative assault. This included limits on civil society and on media freedom of expression, as well restrictions imposed on the courts. Part of this campaign over the last two years has included attacks against the Hungarian-born Jewish-American billionaire George Soros, who donates money to human rights groups in Hungary. Netanyahu also attacks Soros as part of his campaign against left-wing NGOs. The Hungarian government’s inflammatory campaign is perceived by many Hungarian Jews as replete with anti-Semitic elements.

In Poland too there is an ultra-nationalist government, which, although it differs from Orban’s on social and economic issues, has constant tension with the EU due to the different values they espouse. In contrast to Hungary, Poland continuously tries to mitigate the frontal confrontation. 

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia governments are led by parties considered to be centrist. However, Czech President Milos Zeman is known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policies. He is an avid supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, opposes migration and is known for his anti-Muslim statements. Slovakia is more marginal in the confrontation with the EU and with regards to relations with Israel. However, opposition to migration is strong there too, and this country’s foreign relations are influenced by its partners in the V-4. Austria is another country whose relations with the EU and with Israel resemble those of the V-4. 

Historically, Germany has served as a bridge between east and west. However the growing feeling in Berlin is that relations with the V-4 have deteriorated significantly since the borders were opened to migrants. In a plan recently leaked to the media it was revealed that Berlin is preparing for the possibility that states in central and Eastern Europe may leave the EU and set up a European-Asian autocratic union. The growing Chinese investments in the region have fueled such speculation. 

Israel has been exploiting this internal, complex and delicate European dissent in recent years in order to change the way decisions about its policies are made in the EU. Observers in Brussels point to a chilling effect created by the alliance between Israel and the V-4 on the ability to issue joint statements in the name of all 28 EU members. “Netanyahu succeeded in using this group in order to undermine European unity,” they say. This effect is not limited to just these four countries. There are similar ties with Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Cyprus and even Greece. “When the Union wants to issue something in the name of all its members, as happens in foreign affairs, there are specific cases in which Hungary objects or demands a softening of the criticism of Israel, to the extent that other countries cannot agree, so that the declaration is void,” say these observers. 

One of these is Martin Konecny, director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP) which is based in Brussels. “The Visegrad countries, and in the first place Hungary, have been increasingly weakening and even blocking joint EU statements on the conflict. They are often joined by other eastern EU states such as Romania, Bulgaria or Croatia. That dynamic is not new but the bloc has become more assertive and numerous in the last 2-3 years. This has made it more difficult for the EU to speak with one clear voice on the conflict,” he says.

A salient current example of this, Konecny says, is the move in which Hungary, Romania and the Czechs blocked an EU statement against the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in May. The same states, together with Austria, took part in a reception organized by Israel’s foreign ministry on that occasion. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have in the meantime declared that they will move their cultural centers to Jerusalem, and promised to move their embassies as well in the future. Romania has also promised to do so. This is in response to heavy pressure exerted by Netanyahu on this issue over the last year. It’s likely that Orban will also offer such a promise during his visit in Israel. So far no EU state, including those in central and Eastern Europe, has violated the EU policy, which opposes the transfer of embassies before a peace agreement is reached. In addition, these countries have been making it difficult for the EU to sign direct agreements with the Palestinians. 

Observers in Israel said this week that Netanyahu’s haste in resolving the Polish law regarding the Holocaust was connected to his wish to bolster relations with Poland. The Prime Minister’s Office, however, denies this.

Dr Nimrod Goren, the head of the think tank, Mitvim, the Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, believes that fostering relations with these countries at the expense of larger liberal European countries is a mistake which harms important friendships. “Israel has traditionally preferred strengthening ties with specific countries, but in the past it recognized the importance of its ties with the EU, in terms of common interests and values. This was never politically controversial. In recent years there has been a change and the ties with the Visegrad group reflect this well. The choice of these countries attests to Israel’s moving away from the values of a liberal democracy. The Economist’s democracy index ranks all these countries lower than Israel. These should not be Israel’s allies in a continent which prides itself on democratic ideals and human rights. Germany, Britain and France are much more important for ensuring Israel’s security and for fulfilling its national interests. Choosing the V-4 distances Israel even more from the EU, which is investing a lot in contending with challenges posed by these countries. It also contradicts Israel’s efforts to fight extreme right-wing elements in other European countries, as well as Israel’s ties with Cyprus and Greece, which consider democracy a strong binding factor to Israel. Israel should diversify its foreign policy but without losing its moral compass.”

Israeli sources told Haaretz in response that “V-4 states are interested in the tightening of relations with Israel for the same reasons that the rest of the countries in the world are: They correctly recognize the potential lying in the tightening of these relations for the benefit of financial-technological development and the handling of the challenges posed by terrorism, which transcends borders.”

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