Hungary Visit Puts Netanyahu's Attitude Toward Nationalist Governments in Europe to the Test

At Budapest’s Great Synagogue, the Israeli prime minister will meet with members of the local Jewish community, who have been deeply disappointed by his attitude toward the anti-Soros billboards

A poster vilifying U.S. billionaire George Soros in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, July 6, 2017.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's highly guarded convoy made its way from the Budapest airport to his hotel on Monday, he could easily have noticed five large blue billboards showing Jewish tycoon George Soros that are still displayed along the highway.

The Hungarian government had said it would remove the signs, which carry a whiff of anti-Semitism (and some of which had swastikas spray-painted on them), ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, but it did not do so, at least not completely.

Netanyahu’s visit to Hungary, the first by an Israeli prime minister in over 30 years, was supposed to have been a festive occasion devoid of drama. But because of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s campaign against Soros, Netanyahu’s visit has come to be regarded as a test of the right-wing Israeli government’s attitude toward the nationalist right-wing governments in Europe. These governments do not often criticize the occupation or the settlements, but they try to rewrite the history of their countries during the Holocaust and implement nationalist and racist policies that can stir anti-Semitism.

When Netanyahu attended a ceremony in Paris together with French President Emmanuel Macron commemorating the 75th anniversary of the deportation of Parisian Jews, it only highlighted this point. Macron, whose speech was broadcast live, spoke directly to the French public against any attempt to minimize its role and that of the Vichy government in what befell French Jews during the Holocaust. In contrast, Orban recently gave a speech filled with praise for Hitler ally Miklos Horthy, who was responsible for sending a half-million Hungarian Jews to the concentration camps.

In a briefing to reporters following his meeting with Macron, Netanyahu spoke at length about the French president’s speech and its important messages concerning the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. He has been less eager to discuss Orban’s speech. “I instructed the Israeli ambassador to make our position on this matter known,” said Netanyahu. “This was done and they made a revision. I intend to discuss this with Orban during our meeting.”

Wednesday evening, Netanyahu will meet with members of the Jewish community at Budapest’s Great Synagogue. Such an event, usually a routine part of a prime minister’s visit to a foreign country, has taken on much more significance in light of the recent events in Hungary. Last week, Andras Heisler, head of the Hungarian Jewish community, met with officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Heisler is said to have conveyed a message of concern over the growing anti-Semitic atmosphere in Hungary and over what is seen as the Israeli government’s overly forgiving attitude. In a meeting Heisler held at the Foreign Ministry he voiced harsher criticism and expressed disappointment at the conduct of the Israeli government in the affair. "We thought Israel would be at our side in times of need but we discovered that this was not the case and that diplomatic interests overcame the need to fight anti-Semitism," he said, according to Israeli officials.

While in Jerusalem, Heisler met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser Jonathan Schachter. Sources in the Jewish community and senior Israeli officials said Heisler spoke of the great disappointment with the Israeli government, especially with how it has responded to the posters against Soros. Netanyahu must realize that there is genuine fear that this campaign by Orban is fueling anti-Semitic sentiments, the head of the Jewish community told Schachter. Heisler added that some in the community believe that Netanyahu should have called off the visit in Budapest in protest of Orban's conduct, however others think this campaign stresses the need for such a visit.

The head of the Jewish community told Schachter that Netanyahu must understand that the Jews of Hungary do not support Soros, but are genuinely anxious about the situation in the country, including Orban's current political campaign. He has also asked that during his visit the prime minister make clear Israel's position on the struggle against anti-Semitism.At a press briefing in Paris on Sunday, Netanyahu began to provide the necessary clarification. “We stand against displays of anti-Semitism towards Israel and towards all groups of Jews, whether in France or in Hungary," Netanyahu said. "This is our position – make no mistake about it."

It remains to be seen what he will tell Orban when they meet on Tuesday.