Netanyahu Seeks to Cement EU Rightist Bloc at Jerusalem Visegrad Summit

Prime ministers from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia will meet in conference hosted by Israel, which hopes to use intra-European conflict to gain leverage ■ Poland mulls pulling out over Israeli FM's comments

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual state of the nation speech in Budapest, Hungary, February 10, 2019
\ BERNADETT SZABO/ REUTERS

UPDATE: Poland pulls out of Jerusalem summit after 'racist' Israeli remarks

In the wake of the last-minute cancelation by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki over the Holocaust Law imbroglio, his foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, may also not be attending the meeting of the Visegrad nations, also known as the V-4 group, that Israel is hosting Monday and Tuesday.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 16Haaretz

The group also includes Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which will all be represented by their respective prime ministers. The four nations will each meet with Netanyahu separately, after which representatives of all five countries will hold a joint meeting, issue statements to the press and have lunch together. Only the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, plans to visit Yad Vahsem.

Israel is hosting the meeting because of Netanyahu’s invitation, which followed his being hosted in July 2017 in Budapest. That meeting was best known for the open microphone incident. Like with so many other incidents involving Netanyahu, it is still not completely clear whether or not this was deliberate. Either way, Netanyahu could be heard sharply assailing the European Union during a closed meeting held with the Visegrad Group leaders. “The EU is the only international organization that predicates its relations with Israel – which provides it with technology – on political considerations,”  Netanyahu said at the time, supposedly for the ears of these leaders only.

>> Read more: By cultivating new visegrad 'friends,' Israel shows it's lost all shame ■ In Poland, Netanyahu discovers the limits of playing with history ■ Leaked video, deleted tweet and Polish crisis: Netanyahu's turbulent trip in Warsaw

However, his words were clearly heard over earphones handed out to journalists just moments before they were cut off. Netanyahu told them to pass a message to their European colleagues that when they undermine Israel, they undermine their own security. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban chimed in, “The EU places conditions on the ones already inside the EU, not only the countries on the outside.” Netanyahu answered, “I think Europe has to decide if it wants to live and thrive or if it wants to shrivel and disappear."

These things explain well the alliance that Netanyahu is seeking to form between Israel and the Visegrad nations and why he is hosting them in Jerusalem: to further a warming of relations with them to erode the consensus within the EU on issues regarding Israel. This goal dovetails with the growing friction between central Europe and the EU, with Hungary and Poland, headed by right-wing governments, especially challenging Brussels. These tensions, which stem mainly from the waves of migration to the continent and the rise of global terror, have put in jeopardy the joint liberal values upon which the EU was founded.

Orban’s Hungary is the extreme-right forerunner in the band of governments with policies to constrict democracy through legislation, limitations on civil society and control over the press and the judicial system. Orban’s campaign includes incitement against Jewish-American billionaire George Soros, a native of Hungary who donates to human rights organizations in the country. Netanyahu also attacks Soros often in his fight against left-wing NGOs. Many Hungarian Jews consider this campaign anti-Semitic.

A right-wing nationalist government also runs Poland, which is in a bitter confrontation with the EU. The controversy over the law enabling a lawsuit against anyone who attributes responsibility to the Polish people for Nazi crimes is just one example in the nationalist platform of Prime Minister Morawiecki.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the governments are led by populists whose parties are considered to be in the center-left of the political map. Moreover, Czech President Milos Zeman is considered an enthusiastic supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, opposes immigration and is known for anti-Muslim statements. Slovakia is a more marginal player in the conflict with Europe but the anti-immigrant rhetoric is also prominent there.

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban share a light moment during the reception ceremony in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017.
Balazs Mohai/AP

Orban said during his visit to Israel in July that 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.” Netanyahu is exploiting the internal European divide to thwart the consensus needed always when the 28 EU nations decide over foreign policy. Last August, at another summit with Baltic nations in Lithuania, Netanyahu repeated the tactic and also detailed it in public.

“I want to thank you ... for the strong position you have taken in the forums of the EU on behalf of truth, on behalf of Israel, on behalf of decency,” Netanyahu told Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis. He addressed the invitation Lithuania had given him the previous December for a breakfast with EU foreign ministers at its headquarters in Brussels. The move was considered a coup against the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini.

“Israel is often mistreated by the EU in Brussels. There are many distortions that are leveled at us and it’s refreshing to see that you take a stand of clarity, of truth and of courage. And we discussed how that can be expanded,” he said.

And thus did Netanyahu then detail his method in his visit to Lithuania: “I am also interested in balancing the not always friendly attitude of the European Union towards Israel so that we receive fairer and more genuine treatment. I am doing this through contacts with blocs of countries within the European Union, Eastern European countries, [and] now with the Baltic countries, as well, of course with other countries.”

Observers in the halls of Brussels attest that indeed the Israeli alliance with the Visegrad nations has created a “chilling effect” on the ability to publish joint statements on issues related to Israel in the name of all 28 EU members. A similar relationship exists occasionally as well with Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania as noted, Cyprus and even Greece, which is actually considered a bastion of the left.

File photo: Polish President Andrzej Duda and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk after a group photo at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland, February 13, 2019.
Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Besides the joint confrontation with the EU, the desire among some of the Visegrad nations to move closer to the United States under the Trump administration is prevalent. Netanyahu often presents this goal as a carrot, since he is considered especially close to the administration. Arms trading and technology, in tandem with the nationalist policy stressing security needs, is sometimes mentioned in foreign reports as a significant factor in these countries’ drawing nearer to Israel.

Overshadowing relations between Israel and the Visegrad nations, and the European right in general, is the issue of the memory of the Holocaust, as could be seen in the latest tempest with Poland. Both in Hungary and Austria, a trend of shirking local responsibility for Nazi crimes and focusing the guilt on Germany can be seen. Growing close to Israel lets these leaders get a virtual affirmation that their motives are not anti-Semitic.

Diplomatic sources in Israel have told Haaretz in response to these claims 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.”

In a position paper that a team from the Mitvim think tank prepared on the issue, Irena Kalhousova, a Czech expert on Israeli-Visegrad relations, wrote, “Orban sees in conducting good relations with the Jewish state an opportunity to push back against criticism that he is advancing a policy based on an anti-Semitic discourse. By being an enthusiastic supporter of ethno-nationalism, Orban admires Netanyahu for his tough position in advancing Israel’s diplomatic and security interest and the internal policy he takes to ensure the ethnic character of the State of Israel.” Still, she writes: “The Visegrad nations have more important matters than Israel on their agenda vis-à-vis the EU and I don’t expect them to be inclined to go often against the EU position regarding Israel.”

According to the same position paper, experts at the think tank believe Netanyahu’s approach is liable to hurt Israel in the long term. Thus, they recommend the government moderate the attack: “Sometimes, Israel has an interest in being helped by the internal European split for its own benefit. At the same time, it should be careful not to attack the basic idea of the EU. The more it can, [it should] make such moves with greater secrecy with the understanding of the sensitivity of this tactic regarding the European project. For example, being aided by the Eastern Mediterranean Alliance with Cyprus and Greece to influence decision making in the EU threatens the EU less, and is accepted with greater understanding than the use of the Visegrad nations and general actions to weaken the EU.”