Orban's PR Hothouse Recruits Right-wing Israeli Influencers - Including Yair Netanyahu

The Israeli PM's son is among several influential rightists set to address a conference at the prestigious MCC college, whose goal is to shape the next generation of Hungary’s conservative elite

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Viktor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in Jerusalem on July 19, 2018.
Viktor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in Jerusalem on July 19, 2018. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, is slated to attend a media conference in Budapest on Wednesday at a college considered close to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. The three-day conference at Mathias Corvinus Collegium is on “The Future of Publishing.”

In addition to Netanyahu, who is described in the program as a “columnist, radio show host, Israeli political social media influencer,” other participants include senior executives from the German publisher Axel Springer and editors at conservative media outlets.

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Netanyahu is slated to speak on two panels. One is titled “Business models – can online media be profitable, can print survive?” The other is “Money and media: online success stories.”

MCC is a prestigious college whose goal is to shape the next generation of Hungary’s conservative elite. In 2020 and 2021, parliament, which is controlled by Fidesz, passed legislation transferring control of several universities and other public institutions to foundations run by people close to the party. Though MCC isn’t a public university, it received over a billion euros – one percent of Hungary’s gross domestic product – in cash, shares and real estate as part of the move.

The government said the goal was to make colleges more financially independent and competitive. But critics said it was really intended to increase the government’s influence over academia.

In an interview published in Haaretz in Hebrew this weekend, Prof. Andrea Peto, a Hungarian historian, described MCC as an institution that has taken a lot of money from Hungarian taxpayers and the impoverished public education system. One of its goals is to teach students language of “illiberals,” she said.

Peto explains that the main parallel organization for illiberal knowledge transfer is the Matthias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. This institution, which is wealthier than Oxford University, uses money channeled from the deliberately impoverished Hungarian higher education, and operates with the same ideological closeness and cruelty as did the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow during the Soviet Union.

Some Israelis also attend MCC, she noted, predicting that what had happened in Hungary would soon happen in Israel as well, including limits on the Supreme Court. She described Hungary’s experience as a “test drive,” adding that Fidesz’s moves had been discussed in advance with intellectuals from Hungary, China, the United States and Germany.

“Supporters of the legal revolution frequently cite examples from Canada, the U.S. and Britain to justify their radical plans,” said Yonatan Levi, a doctoral student who is researching populism at the London School of Economics. “But their ties with Orban’s government show that their model isn’t any Western country, but Hungary.”

“There’s a worrying similarity between the Netanyahu government’s plans for the future of the courts, the education system and the media and the ‘reforms’ Orban has enacted over the last decade, which destroyed democracy in Hungary,” he added. “Budapest in recent years has become a pilgrimage site for representatives of the radical right from all over the world. Orban showers them with money, honor and titles, and they do public relations for his government in whatever country they came from.”

One Israeli who has close ties with MCC is Dr. Gadi Taub, a right-wing political commentator who was a visiting fellow at the college in December. He participated in an MCC podcast and gave a lecture for the general public titled “How the Israeli Supreme Court became an uber-government.”

Columnist Gadi Taub speaking at a pro-Netanyahu rally in Petah Tikva, in 2019.Credit: David Bachar

In recent months, Taub has tweeted about Hungary and Orban several times. In December, for instance, he said he was in Hungary “to bring home some useful recommendations for how to save democracy from the left. Orban knows how to work.”

He then quoted another visiting fellow at MCC, media personality Rod Dreher, as saying, “We have to learn from Orban. The right’s achievements worldwide won’t be sustainable if the right continues to abandon legal and cultural power centers to the left. That’s the lesson. The left will obviously scream about losing its privileges, but so what?”

In July, following a “two-hour private meeting with Orban,” Taub tweeted that “today, Eastern Europe bears the real spirit of European culture” because “migration has made Western Europe’s situation irreversible. Mixing populations – Muslim culture and European culture – won’t work.”

He also described attending an MCC event together with Hungary’s ambassador to Israel, Levente Benko, and a senior MCC official, Dr. Attila Demko. “The Hungarians are interested in Israel for obvious reasons – both countries are fighting for nationalism’s legitimacy,” he wrote. In addition, he referred his followers to a report by a Hungarian news site that quoted him assailing the Israeli left’s criticisms of Orban.

A tough job

MCC’s chairman of the board is Balazs Orban, who is Viktor Orban’s political director, though the two aren’t related. On Thursday, Orban the adviser attended his prime minister’s meeting with Amiad Cohen, director-general of the Tikvah Fund, Israel. Balazs Orban later tweeted, “One of the reasons for Mr. Cohen’s visit to Hungary is to get to know the work of @MCC_Budapest. We are looking forward to a productive cooperation with Tikvah Fund Israel based on our shared ideals.”

Orban the prime minister tweeted that “Building a conservative community is a tough job. But both [Hungary] and [Israel] have some great results already.”

Netanyahu and OrbanCredit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO, Corinna Kern / Reuters, Anastasia Shub

Dr. Ofir Haivry, vice president of the Herzl Institute and one of the founders of the Shalem Center, has also participated in several MCC events over the last year, most recently after Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory in November. In an interview with MCC’s podcast, he said that Hungary and Israel could cooperate on international issues.

In 2021, he and the Kohelet Policy Forum’s international law expert, Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, both participated in a panel discussion on the Israeli elections organized by MCC. And last year, Haivry was made a visiting fellow at another Budapest research institute, the Danube Institute.

Yet another contributor to Orban’s relationship with the Israeli right is Tamir Wertzberger, a Likud activist who has lived in Budapest for the past few years. According to a Hungarian website, he set up a World Likud branch in Hungary in 2019 and is one of the party’s international coordinators. On social media, Wertzberger frequently voices support for both Orban and Netanyahu.

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