Two weeks before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to join a diplomatic summit in Budapest, tension erupted between Israel and Hungary over a speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in which he praised the leader of Hungary during the Holocaust, Miklos Horthy, who collaborated with the Nazis. Israel protested the remarks, but according to a senior Israeli official, Jerusalem agreed to accept a weak clarification by the Hungarian foreign minister in order to avoid damaging the upcoming summit.
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The affair began on June 21, when at a political rally of Fidesz, the party Orban heads, the prime minister said of Horthy, who was regent of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1920 to 1944: “The fact that history did not bury us after World War I was thanks to a number of extraordinary statesmen like the regent, Miklos Horthy. This fact cannot be contradicted by mentioning the unfortunate role of Hungary during World War II.”
According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Horthy led anti-Semitic policies, passed laws against the Jews over the years, was an ally of Adolf Hitler and collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. From 1942 to 1943, Horthy resisted German pressure to place the Jews in ghettos and deport them to extermination camps. But after Germany conquered Hungary in 1944, Horthy appointed a puppet government obedient to the Nazis and gave it full authority to act against the Jews. As a result, half a million Hungarian Jews were sent to extermination camps; most were murdered in Auschwitz.
Orban’s remarks were made as part of an extremist nationalist and racist campaign he is conducting ahead of elections in 2018 and to prevent his party’s voters from leaving it for the extreme right-wing party Jobbik. One of Orban’s close advisers is the American political consultant Arthur Finkelstein. The latter served as campaign director for Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Likud’s campaigns in 1996 and 1999, and for Yisrael Beiteinu and its chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, in 2006. He was also deeply involved in the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu’s joint campaign in 2013.
Orban’s statements drew criticism from the Hungarian Jewish community and the World Jewish Congress. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the leading institution in Holocaust research in the United States, released an unusually harsh statement in response to Orban’s remarks: “The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum condemns any attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Hungary’s wartime leader, Miklos Horthy, who was a vocal anti-Semite and complicit in the murder of the country’s Jewish population during the Holocaust.”
The U.S. museum also wrote that Orban’s praise for Horthy as a statesman was “a gross distortion of historical fact and is the latest in a long series of propagandistic attempts of the Fidesz political party and the Hungarian government that Mr. Orban leads to rewrite Hungarian history.”
Orban’s remarks placed Israel in an embarrassing position considering that Netanyahu is to meet his Hungarian counterpart at a summit in Budapest on July 18, and the next day he and Orban are to meet with the leaders of Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. This is Netanyahu’s first visit to Hungary since he returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009.
Still, Orban’s remarks required a response by the government in Jerusalem and four days after the speech, Israel’s ambassador in Budapest, Yossi Amrani, issued a statement noting that Orban’s words were very disturbing and the collaboration of the Horthy regime with the Nazis must not be forgotten, as well as the race laws enacted during his time and the destruction of Hungary’s Jewish community. “Whatever the reason and national goal might be, there is no justification for such statements,” Amrani said in a public statement.
A senior Israeli official said that Amrani also communicated through quiet channels with senior officials in the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry in Budapest, demanding clarifications and saying Israel hoped Orban’s statements would not cast a pall over the upcoming summit. A few days later, when the Hungarian government had still not issued a clarification, Amrani gave an interview on a major Hungarian television station and reiterated Israel’s demand for clarification and a warning that the tension could hurt the summit.
Quiet diplomatic contacts had been underway since Wednesday in an attempt to resolve the crisis, and on Saturday Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto spoke by phone to Amrani to put an end to the affair. In a statement to the press released after the phone call, Szijjarto said he had made clear to the Israeli ambassador that the Hungarian government had zero tolerance for any kind of anti-Semitism.
Szijjarto also said that he told Amrani that “the regime of Miklos Horthy had its positive times but also very negative times and we must respect the historical facts that clearly indicate this.” The foreign minister added that the positive part of Horthy’s legacy was his work to stabilize Hungary after World War I, but the very negative part was “his historical sin,” when contrary to his promises he did not protect the Jewish community, passed laws against it and that hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. “All of these are historical sins whose seriousness cannot be diminished,” Szijjarto said.
Although Szijjarto did not clarify Orban’s remarks, apologize or express regret for them, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, with an eye on the upcoming summit, decided to act with restraint and end the affair. Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in response: “Israel believes that the statements by the Hungarian foreign minister to the Israeli ambassador in Budapest constitute an important clarification with regard to recognition of Horthy’s crime against the Jews of Hungary. We will always remember the 564,500 of our brothers and sisters of the Jewish community of Hungary who were murdered in the Holocaust.”
Zionist Union Ksenia Svetlova turned to Netanyahu on the issue. "As you dared to cancel your meeting with the German foreign minister after he met with Breaking the Silence, I demand that you cancel your visit to Hungary and your meeting with Viktor Orban, who has expressed sympathy for his country's dark past from the time of the Holocaust, and not for the first time."
"I expect the person who turned the 'whole world is against us' [mantra] into a career to have the same standards against people from the extreme right in the world," she added.
"These says I am working on an amendment to the proposed entry into Israeli law so that it prohibits the entry into Israel of declared anti-Semites, people who oddly enough have become his party's partners, and are even invited by them to visits to Israel," Svetlova said.