At the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry on Sunday retracted a statement issued the previous day by the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, which had called on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party to halt a poster campaign against Jewish-American financier George Soros on the grounds that it was fueling anti-Semitism.
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Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon issued a clarification that refrained from criticizing Orbán but also sharply criticized Soros himself, using claims similar to the ones being made against him by the Hungarian government.
“Israel deplores any expression of anti-Semitism in any country and stands with Jewish communities everywhere in confronting this hatred. This was the sole purpose of the statement issued by Israel’s ambassador to Hungary,” the statement said. “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”
The tension comes at a particularly sensitive time, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Orbán in Budapest on July 18, during what will be the first visit of an Israeli premier to Hungary in 30 years. The day after their meeting, Netanyahu and Orbán are scheduled to meet with the leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.
On Saturday, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Yossi Amrani issued an extraordinarily sharp statement in which he called on Orbán and his party, Fidesz, to remove posters hung throughout the country that criticized Soros.
The posters appearing all over Hungary over the past few days feature a picture of Soros laughing and are captioned, “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh.”
Some of the posters were glued to the floor of train cars in Budapest and other cities, so that anyone boarding the train would have to step on them.
Orbán and Fidesz are attacking Soros – who was born in Budapest and survived Nazi-occupied Hungary – because of the latter’s supposed activity against Hungary’s harsh policies toward the entry of Muslim refugees.
Orbán and Fidesz have taken what many see as a nationalist, racist and Islamophobic line ahead of the 2018 election. They claim Soros funds civil society groups and liberal associations in Hungary with the purpose of “settling a million migrants” in the country.
The Jewish community in Hungary, numbering over 100,000, is extremely concerned by the messages in Orbán’s election campaign – particularly the ones against Soros. Since the launch of the campaign, the Hungarian media has reported a number of incidents in which anti-Semitic graffiti has been spray-painted on the posters.
Senior figures in the Jewish community have conveyed very worried messages to the Israeli Embassy in Budapest about the posters, which they say have anti-Semitic connotations and encourage an atmosphere of aggression against Jews, especially because many Hungarians consider Soros as first and foremost Jewish.
Following the messages conveyed by the local Jewish communities, there were consultations between Amrani and Foreign Ministry staffers in Jerusalem, after which it was decided to issue a statement critical of the poster campaign.
The wording of the statement was approved by the ministry’s deputy director general for diplomacy, Alon Ushpiz, and Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem.
“The campaign not only evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” the statement said. “It’s our moral responsibility to raise a voice and call on the relevant authorities to exert their power and put an end to this cycle.”
Although Netanyahu holds the foreign ministry portfolio, the senior Foreign Ministry officials that approved the wording of the statement did not coordinate its release with the Prime Minister’s Office, which learned of it from the media.
After the statement was issued, there was also pushback from right-wing politicians and media outlets, which condemned the Foreign Ministry for issuing a statement that seemed to defend Soros, whom the Israeli right sees as leading the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
As a result of this pressure, the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the Foreign Ministry to issue a clarification that included a general denunciation of anti-Semitism without specifically mentioning Hungary, while also criticizing Soros.
This is the second recent clash between Israel and Hungary over messages with anti-Semitic connotations promulgated by Orbán and his party.
At an election rally two weeks ago, Orbán praised Hungary’s leader during World War II, Miklós Horthy, who collaborated with the Nazis and under whose rule 500,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to extermination camps, where most were murdered.
Israel protested the statements to the government in Budapest. However, in order not to compromise the upcoming summit, it agreed to restraint itself and made do with a weakly worded clarification by the Hungarian foreign minister.