Anyone in Hungary who declares himself a Jew can feel safe in Hungary, the country's Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Thursday morning as he met with Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu as he kicked off an official two-day visit.
Orban paid a visit to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center Thursday where demonstrators gathered outside the center in protest of his visit.
Orban told Netanyahu that he believes "excellent ties between Israel and Hungary" are in large part the result of personal ties between the leaders – and that he thinks "this is because both countries have a patriotic leader."
The Hungarian leader also asserted that "modern anti-Semitism" is on the rise in western Europe while decreasing in eastern Europe, adding that Hungary has zero tolerance for anti-Semitic statements.
Netanyahu told Orban that they both understand the threat that radical Islam poses to Europe, Israel and Arab countries. "Iran is the greatest threat and we are the front-line protecting Europe as well," Netanyahu said. The prime minister also thanked Orban for Hungary's support for Israel on the international stage.
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The European Union meanwhile decided on Thursday to refer Hungary to the Court of Justice of the EU for non-compliance of its asylum and return legislation with EU law. The EU commission send a letter to Hungary concerning new Hungarian legislation which criminalizes activities supporting asylum and residence applications, and puts restrictions on the right to request asylum.
At the same time, Netanyahu tweeted a message after his meeting with Orban, expressing optimism: "I am happy to host my friend, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Our relationship has been getting stronger over the past few years, and we're going to make it stronger."
A nationalist lightning rod
Orban, who was recently reelected to a third consecutive term, is considered a EU nationalist lightning rod. He has led a policy of restricting democracy in his own country. Since his reelection in 2010, after having previously served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, he has waged a legislative offensive to impose restrictions on civil society, the media and the justice system. He gerrymandered voting districts in a move that helped him remain in power.
As part of his battle against human rights organizations in Hungary, Orban introduced legislation nicknamed the “Stop Soros” bill, to criminalize these groups’ efforts to help asylum seekers. George Soros, a Jewish billionaire born in Hungary, supports many of the country’s liberal organizations. After Orban won reelection in April, Netanyahu called to congratulate him on his victory. Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party won decisively, capturing two-thirds of the seats in parliament. As a result, Orban now has a majority that would enable him to amend the constitution.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has drawn closer to central European countries, such as the Visegrad Group – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - an alliance Israel partly aims to use to weaken the European Union consensus on Palestinian and Iranian issues. Apart from their improved ties with Israel, the Visegrad countries have increasingly been at odds with western Europe, first and foremost Germany, over the massive migration wave of 2015 and global terrorism, in a way that has cast doubt on the shared liberal values on which the EU is based. Under Orbán, Hungary has spearheaded this battle.
Opposition slams visit
Opposition Knesset members meanwhile condemned the visit, and Hungarian Holocaust survivors are expected to stage a protest during Orbán’s visit to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on Thursday.
“After he plundered the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in the agreement with Poland, today Netanyahu will honor Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, who praised the anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator in the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary,” Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid tweeted Wednesday.
Meretz chairwoman MK Tamar Zandberg addressed Orban in Hungarian on her Twitter account, posting: “Those who praise collaborators with the Nazis, those who persecute human rights groups and the opposition in their country – are not welcome here.”
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) said: “Netanyahu, who uses the term ‘Auschwitz borders’ to instill fear in the hearts of the Jewish people,” is now rehabilitating “the dark history in countries where the leaders and the people collaborated with the Nazis and murdered Jews.”
Apparently for Netanyahu, the ends justify the means,” Svetlova said, adding: that “the ends are clear: damaging the European Union [by means of] closer ties to Eastern European countries that define themselves as illiberal democracies.”