BUDAPEST – In recent months, activists and journalists are suspicious whenever they receive an email from an Israeli or hear a Hebrew-speaking voice from an unknown number on their phone. They carry out background checks and verify identities through multiple social media platforms before agreeing to meet.
Their suspicions are well-founded. Right-wing newspapers in Hungary and Israel have carried reports and damning quotes from employees of civil rights NGOs, allegedly working with European partners in trying to influence legislation in the Hungarian parliament. It has all fed into the hysteria being whipped up by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party against refugees and those trying to help them. Earlier this month, Politico revealed that the Israeli company Black Cube carried out a sting operation designed to smear the nonprofits ahead of April’s parliamentary election.
“The woman who called me and offered to pay me for speaking at a conference said she was Spanish, but had an Israeli accent,” one target of the sting operation tells Haaretz. “That wasn’t the only thing that made me suspicious, of course. She was offering me 5,000 euros [$5,815] to give one lecture. That’s more than I make in a year.”
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The reputation of Black Cube and other commercial surveillance companies founded by alumni of Israel’s intelligence community isn’t the only reason Hungarian activists are wary of talking to Israelis. In Budapest’s corridors of power and among the city’s close-knit communities of journalists, activists and Israeli expats, there is a consensus that the Hungarian government’s relations with Jerusalem have never been more intense. And that was true long before Wednesday evening, when Orbán arrived in Israel on his first official visit to the country.
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“If you want to understand Bibi, look at Orbán. And vice versa,” says one Budapest resident who has spent time with both the Hungarian and Israeli prime ministers. Indeed, the parallels between Benjamin Netanyahu and Orbán are breathtaking. Both men first came to power in the 1990s, as the youngest prime ministers in their countries’ histories. Both lost an election after only one term in office and then spent nearly a decade in opposition. Both subsequently returned to the Prime Minister’s Office and have since won three consecutive elections using xenophobia, a siege mentality and the weakness of their liberal-left rivals to perpetuate and deepen their hold on power.
The similarities don’t end there. Netanyahu and Orbán both lead relatively small nations, each with some 9 million citizens. Yet despite their size, each leader has leveraged his position: Netanyahu into that of a global statesman who has the ear of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin; Orbán as the figurehead for other nationalist and populist politicians who are disrupting the policies of the European Union’s Brussels establishment. Netanyahu and Orbán, veterans of three decades of politics, were both harbingers of the Trump era.
Hungarians on the right and left find very little common ground these days, but both supporters and opponents of Orbán are in clear agreement that he and Bibi are close. “Orbán and Netanyahu have joint values,” says the Hungarian government’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács. “They share political pragmatism instead of dogmatic ideology. You can see it’s working. These two nations are facing similar challenges with similar solutions.”
Kovács, who was a historian before he went into politics, has a point. Hungarians and Israelis share similar geopolitical circumstances: Small nations with a unique language and culture, nestling between much larger regional powers and national groups, and with aspirations to punch far above their weight. Both Netanyahu and Orbán have a keen understanding of their respective nations’ histories and have been very adept at using it to their political advantage in domestic politics and, increasingly, on the global stage.
This is Orbán’s first official visit to Israel as prime minister, following Netanyahu’s first official visit to Budapest last July. But the two have known each other for over a decade, sharing a web of political contacts and advisers reaching from Jerusalem to Washington. Orbán has visited Jerusalem in a private capacity at least twice before, once when both men were in opposition a decade ago.
“They have given each other advice on political messaging – including on what phrases to use in speeches,” says one senior Israeli official. “And, of course, Bibi introduced Orbán to Finkelstein.”
The legendary political strategist Arthur Finkelstein – master of the dark arts of negative campaigning, who created Netanyahu’s devastatingly effective “Peres will divide Jerusalem” slogan in the 1996 election – was recommended to Orbán and masterminded his 2010 reelection campaign. The New York State-based Finkelstein, who passed away last year, only made short, usually secret, appearances in the countries where he advised. But he would send his associates to supervise matters up close. The man Finkelstein sent as project manager for the 2010 Orbán campaign was his partner, George Birnbaum, who had previously lived in Israel and worked for Netanyahu as a senior aide in the ’90s. Members of the Chabad synagogue in central Budapest remember the Orthodox Birnbaum going there for prayers and Shabbat lunch, so he could be in walking distance of Orbán’s Saturday rallies.
Ties have been ongoing between Likud and Fidesz at various levels for years, with delegations from both parties visiting each other. A whole range of advisers, businesspeople and religious leaders also profit from the relationship. “I never imagined how tangled the web between Netanyahu and Orbán was,” says a senior Israeli official who recently worked on an issue of concern to both countries. “But the moment I became involved, I realized just how many millionaires and rabbis and opinion-makers are shuttling between Jerusalem and Budapest.” Ultimately, though, the relationship is down to the two leaders.
Early in his political career, Orbán presented himself as a center-right and even liberal politician. But he took a sharp turn rightward in 2009 and began ruthlessly playing the nationalist card. Netanyahu’s career has pursued a similar trajectory (Likud still called itself a “national-liberal party” until quite recently).
In both cases, the influence of Finkelstein – who once said his proudest achievement was having made the term “liberal” a dirty word in American politics – can be discerned. His political style of distilling entire campaigns into a few “catch words,” playing on the voters’ prejudices and deepest phobias, were as effective in Hungary and Israel as they were in the United States.
For most of their relationship, Netanyahu – who is nearly 14 years older – was the senior and more prominent partner. But over the last two years, as new populist politicians have come to the fore in Europe and the United States, Orbán’s stature has grown and they are more equal today. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Netanyahu – who believed Hillary Clinton would win and was anyway wary of Trump’s unpredictability – remained firmly on the fence. Orbán, on the other hand, didn’t hide his preference for Trump, expressing support for his policies during the election. Netanyahu also took cues from Orbán, trying in recent months to use the issue of asylum seekers in Israel as a rallying point for the Likud base, with tactics borrowed from Orbán’s weaponization of Europe’s refugee crisis to boost his own flagging popularity in 2015.
Netanyahu has also been encouraged by Orbán’s combative stance toward the mainstream establishment of the EU and the most influential EU leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The governments of Israel and Hungary both have a complicated dual relationship with the EU and Germany.
EU membership is essential to a small landlocked country like Hungary. Its economy needs to be part of the EU’s trading network, and a large chunk of Hungary’s GDP is generated by the output of German-owned companies and factories in its territory. EU grants constitute a major part of the Hungarian government’s budget, while the money sent home by hundreds of thousands of Hungarian citizens, who have moved to wealthier EU countries to live and work, is vital to many families. Conversely, the EU has been highly critical of the Orbán government’s policies of cracking down on the media, stacking the courts with pro-Fidesz judges and closing off the border to asylum seekers.
“Germany is a major economic factor for Hungary and the EU cohesion funds give them a major boost as well. Hungary is basically a link in the German supply chain,” explains Karen Vartapetov, a senior analyst at Standard & Poor’s ratings agency. “The Orbán government policy is full of contradictions, both pro- and anti-EU, so they prefer to call it anti-Brussels. And they are part of the German economy while being hypercritical of Merkel.”
‘A key ally’
Israel, while not an EU member like Hungary, has a similar predicament. The EU is its largest trading partner and the source of hundreds of millions of euros-worth of research and economic grants yearly. But Brussels is also the source of much of the criticism of Israeli policies and was at the forefront of opposition to two key recent decisions by the Trump administration: the United States pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal; and moving its embassy to Jerusalem. The relationship with Germany is also uneasy, with Merkel expressing a clear commitment to Israel’s security – by subsidizing the purchase of German submarines and missile boats for Israel’s navy – while also encouraging EU hostility to Netanyahu’s policies.
In response, Netanyahu has adopted the Orbán approach. While he is pro-EU whenever it comes to trade relations, he and his ministers have become increasingly aggressive when it comes to politics. This included refusing to meet with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini when she was scheduled to be in Jerusalem for a conference last month (Mogherini canceled her arrival as a result). And, just like Orbán, he will never criticize Merkel in public, but is increasingly criticizing her policies and courting her opponents in Europe.
“Major changes are happening in Europe. It is becoming less liberal and more nationalist,” says a senior Israeli diplomat. “Orbán is leading this change and Netanyahu has identified him as a key ally.”
Change can’t happen fast enough for either of them. Under the Obama administration, Orbán’s government was frozen out due to corruption allegations against senior Hungarian officials and the prime minister’s closeness to Russian President Putin. Despite Orbán’s affinity with Trump, he wasn’t high on the new administration’s priority list. “The message that Orbán is in the Trump camp didn’t filter down fast enough to the State Department,” says a well-connected official in Budapest. “Bureaucracies are slow everywhere and Orbán looked to Netanyahu to help him out with that.”
But Orbán didn’t wait for Netanyahu to pull Israeli levers in Washington. Early in 2017, the Hungarian government hired two Israelis to work for them in D.C.: Tzvika Brot, a former journalist and now Likud’s mayoral candidate for Bat Yam (a suburb of Tel Aviv); and Ariel Sender, a veteran lobbyist and former adviser to right-wing politicians in Israel. Their company led the Republican Party’s outreach to U.S. citizens living in Israel in the 2016 election, and they also received a $45,000 monthly retainer to lobby for Orbán in Washington.
Those efforts weren’t enough, though: During Netanyahu’s visit to Budapest last year, Orbán asked for assistance, and Israel’s ambassador and Netanyahu confidant Ron Dermer was set to work on opening doors to the administration.
All the Israeli lobbying seems to have helped. In May, the first high-level meeting in years between Hungarian and U.S. officials took place when Orbán’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó (also accompanying Orbán on his visit to Israel), met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington. The meeting was effective in many ways. In the buildup to and during last week’s NATO leaders’ summit in Brussels, Trump was suddenly using an old talking point that was originally made by Orbán. Responding to criticism of his own closeness to Putin, Trump accused Germany of being “a captive of Russia,” due to the Russian natural gas it purchases.
Trump echoed his newfound love of Orbán’s ideology in an interview he gave in Britain over the weekend, where he said that immigration to Europe has led to a rise in crime levels “in some places that have never had crime. I’m not going to mention specific countries, but you can pick the country and you can see what’s happening. Some of the countries would not take it. And they’re being really admonished by the European Union for not doing it.
“You look at Hungary as an example,” he continued. “They’re not agreeing to do what some of the other countries did. Now it’s a very tough thing, on a humanitarian basis you’ve got to do something, and yet it is changing Europe. It’s seriously changing Europe.”
Netanyahu, Trump and Orbán now share a common goal in disrupting EU policy. For that, Netanyahu has been courting not only Orbán but the Visegrád Four (whose other members are Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia). To secure the support of the Visegrád governments, Netanyahu was willing last year to reject the Hungarian-Jewish community’s appeal for support in its demand that the Orbán government stop its anti-Semitic campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish-American financier George Soros. And only three weeks ago he signed a joint statement with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, absolving Poland or the Polish nation as a whole “for the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their collaborators of different nations.” This statement led to an unprecedented announcement by historians at Yad Vashem, who rejected Netanyahu-Morawiecki’s Holocaust revisionism.
In return, along with other like-minded EU members, Orbán has obstructed EU condemnations of Israel on various matters, as well as a condemnation of the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem. He is now trying to get his Visegrád colleagues to agree to hold a five-way summit in Jerusalem next year (like the one Netanyahu attended last year in Budapest). Netanyahu is hoping the four Central European countries will defy the joint EU policy and agree to follow the Trump administration in moving their embassies to Jerusalem, but that may be a bridge too far for them at present.
Officially, Hungary is still sticking to the EU position of supporting the two-state solution and not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But while he is in Israel this week, Orbán will make another gesture by visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem. And he will be defying EU practice, if not official policy, by not including a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on his schedule as well. “We didn’t get an invitation from the Palestinians,” was the blank-faced explanation offered by Kovács, Orbán’s spokesman.
Even if Netanyahu doesn’t get the formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital during this visit, both leaders still believe they have a long and mutually beneficial relationship ahead of them. With Trump’s help, they both intend to remain figureheads for the new populist wave of Western politics for years to come.