Israel to Host Summit for Europe's Emerging Nationalist Bloc

Leaders of Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia to arrive in February as part of Netanyahu's efforts to shake up the EU consensus on issues related to the Palestinians and Iran

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Budapest, July 19, 2017.
Balazs Mohai/AP

A year and a half after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participated in the summit meeting of the Visegrad nations – Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – in Budapest, Israel will host the next meeting of the group on February 18 and 19 in Jerusalem. The meeting was revealed Monday in an official Foreign Ministry document listing planned official visits.

Israel was scheduled to host the summit in July 2018, but it was postponed a number of times. The leaders attending the meeting are expected to visit the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.

The Visegrad, or V-4 group, are considered to be the most nationalist and right-wing countries in the European Union, and Netanyahu has systematically cultivated relations with them over the past year as part of a plan to erode the EU consensus on issues concerning the Palestinians and Iran.

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Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid took Netanyahu to task over his plan to host the summit in Israel. Lapid tweeted that "the summit slated for February includes a prime minister who passed a law that humiliates the memory of Holocaust victims and a premier who publishes anti-Semitic materials."

Lapid also wrote that summit shows Israel has "lost national pride and causes us damage in the international arena. The prime minister needs to get over his eagerness for photo opportunities ahead of the election and cancel the summit."

In July 2017, in an incident involving a microphone that was left turned on – it is still not completely clear whether or not this was deliberate – Netanyahu could be heard sharply assailing the European Union during a closed meeting held in Budapest with Visegrad Group leaders. “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 just 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.”

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban interjected, 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.”

The friction between the Central European nations and the EU has been growing in recent years. Hungary and Poland, two countries with nationalist right-wing leadership, have posed a challenge the central pro-Europe members of the EU – Germany and France.

The internal political processes particular affected by the large wave of immigrants in 2015 and the growing influence of global terrorism in Europe have cast doubt upon the shared liberal values on which the EU was founded.

Hungary, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is considered to be the right-wing nationalist extreme of the EU. During his three terms, Orban has implemented policies to limit democracy in Hungary through a legislative offensive, limitations on civil society and restrictions on the freedom of the press and the legal system.

As part of the campaign, in the past two years Orban has been waging a battle against Jewish American billionaire George Soros, who is originally from Hungary, and donates large sums to human rights organizations in the country. This is the same Soros that Netanyahu frequently attacks in his battle against left-wing organizations in Israel. The Hungarian government’s campaign of incitement against Soros was seen by many Jews in Hungary as overflowing with anti-Semitic symbols.

Poland too, where a nationalist right-wing government holds power – even if it differs from Orban’s government on socioeconomic issues, for example – has regular disagreements with the EU over fundamental issues.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the governments are led by parties considered to be in the center of the political map. But Czech President Milos Zeman, who is known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinse policies and is an enthusiastic supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, very strongly opposes immigration and is known for his anti-Muslim comments.

Slovakia plays a less central role in the confrontation with the EU and relations with Israel, but opposition to the wave of immigrants in the country is notable, and its foreign policy has often been influenced by its V-4 neighbors. 

Another country mentioned as playing a role and with similar characteristics in its relations with the EU and Israel is Austria, which is not a member of the Visegrad group. Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen will visit Israel in February as well, but not as part of the Visegrad summit.

Finding itself historically in the middle, as the bridge between Eastern and Western Europe, is Germany. The prevailing feeling in Berlin is that its relations with the V-4 have seriously deteriorated since borders were opened to immigrants.

Israel has taken advantage of this complex and sensitive internal European struggle in recent years to change previous patterns of how EU institutions have made decisions concerning Israel. Observers have reported a “chilling effect” in the corridors in Brussels created by the alliance between Israel and the V-4, including its ability to make joint statements in the name of all 28 member countries of the EU. The V-4 countries are sometimes joined in this by other nearby countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.