Analysis

Europe’s Most Extreme Nationalist Leader Visits the Jewish People's Nation-state

To top it all off, Hungary’s Viktor Orban was meanwhile being rapped by the EU for his anti-immigrant policies

Viktor Orban and his wife, Aniko Levai, with Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on July 19, 2018.
Haim Zach / GPO

A cloud of controversy swirled round Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's visit to Israel on Thursday. As Europe's most extreme nationalist leader arrived in Jerusalem, the EU Commission announced legal action against Hungary over the country's blatant violation of asylum policy in breach of the EU charter.

The EU executive has recently acted against Orban's "Stop Soros" law, which targets pro-immigrant aid groups funded by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

The commission's first move was against that law, which Orban sponsored to diminish Soros, whose foundations support some of the Hungarian civic groups targeted by the legislation. The second step was against Hungary's blatant violation of the EU's asylum policy.

On the other side, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not a fan of Soros either, had hardly slept between his triumph of passing the nation-state law late Wednesday night and his meeting with Orban.

>> With Orban and Soros, Hungary's Jews trapped between pro-Israel and anti-Semitic policies ■ Netanyahu and Orban: An illiberal bromance spanning from D.C. to Jerusalem

In joint statements in the Prime Minister's Office, under a huge statue of Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, who was born in the city that is now Budapest, Orban linked the two events. He said he believed the "excellent ties between Israel and Hungary" were in large part the result of personal ties between the leaders – and that he thinks "this is because both countries have a patriotic leader."

Orban said the two fully agreed on the major challenges regarding security and every nation's right to protect its borders. Both nations live with a migration crisis and terrorism and must take steps against them, he said.

Netanyahu also referred to the ideological tie linking the two governments: "Both of us understand that radical Islam presents a true threat" to Europe, Israel and Arab countries.

"Iran is the greatest threat and we are the front-line protecting Europe as well," Netanyahu said.

President Reuven Rivlin, who represents the liberal part of the Israeli right wing and has publicly criticized parts of the nation-state law, also understands this link. Rivlin, who hosted Orban after Netanyahu, said plainly: "We have to remember, when we say never again – neo-fascism and neo-fascist groups are a real danger to the very existence of the free world."

Following the debate in the past year on Orban's past problematic comments on the Holocaust, and the growing fear in the Jewish community of increased anti-Semitism under his nationalist rule, both Netanyahu and Rivlin made sure to broach the issue.

"I heard you speak, as a true friend of Israel, about the need to fight against anti-Semitism," Netanyahu said. "Anti-Semitism must always be fought resolutely and unequivocally."

He listed ways in which Orban's government acted to shake off its anti-Semitic image.

Orban asserted that "we feel that responsibility and we fulfill our obligations to defend all the citizens of our country regardless of their faith, beliefs and ethnic origin." He added that Jews are protected by the government that there is "zero tolerance for anti-Semitism."

He added that modern anti-Semitism was clearly present in Europe, but is "increasing in the West and diminishing in the East" and that one of its forms is the "statements against Israel."

Rivlin said, in what could have referred to the nation-state law or anti-Semitism in Hungary, that Israel sees great importance in preserving religious freedom for all, and that Israelis live in a very special community in which Christians, Muslims and Jews live in a democratic Jewish state. He stressed that as a Jewish state, Israel is part of the Jewish people, and there is no way to appreciate Israel as a state without fighting against anti-Semitism. Fascism leads to hatred on the basis of faith and nationality, he said. "I know you are fighting against anti-Semitism. I know the efforts," Rivlin said.

Orban thanked him diplomatically and emphasized again that Hungary is home to one of Europe's largest communities, including families who survived World War II and the Holocaust. This large community is a special responsibility for the Hungarian government, which fulfils its duties to protect all its citizens, of all the origins and religions, Orban said. The Jewish community is under the auspices of the Hungarian government, he went on to say.

The strengthening ties in recent years between Israel and countries in central Europe, a move Netanyahu is leading, is often reflected in an attempt to form a joint coalition in international institutions on issues regarding the Palestinians or Iran. Netanyahu thanked Orban for his country's support for Israel in these forums and for his hospitality in the Visegrad Forum (which includes Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia). The two expressed hope that the forum will take place in Israel soon, perhaps even this year.

In the afternoon, Orban visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, in another symbolic move, and planted a tree in the Grove of Nations. The tour he was given focused on Hungary's history in the Holocaust. At its end, a small group of protesters, including left-wing activists and Holocaust survivors, detained the festive convoy and shouted "shame" at the cars.

In the evening, Orban dined with the Netanyahus in their residence. On Friday, morning he is scheduled to visit the Western Wall before returning to Hungary. He is not slated to meet senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah. If the relations between the two countries continue on the current track, Orban will return to Israel for the Visegard countries' convention. Until then, he intends to set up a "non-liberal democracy" in his country, as he has said more than once.