Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Budapest on Monday, marking the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has visited Hungary since the country emerged from Communist rule in 1989.
However, the run-up to the visit – Netanyahu will meet with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as well as take part in a summit of the four-country Visegrad group made up of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – has been anything but smooth.
First, there is the fact that Jobbik, a far-right party with a history of antisemitism, is the third-largest party in the country.
Second is the government’s anti-immigrant billboard campaign, which has antisemitic overtones because it is using the image of George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish financier who is a harsh critic of Orban’s government.
Soros is also a strident critic of Israel who supports a number of NGOs with radical left-wing agendas, such as Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem, Yesh Din and al-Haq.
And third are Orban’s comments from a few weeks ago in which he praised Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian leader during World War II when 600,000 of the country’s 800,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Those three factors have led to criticism of Netanyahu in recent days from some circles accusing him of playing footsie with a leader many feel has authoritarian leanings and who – in the run-up to elections next spring in which Jobbik is his main rival – is trying to burnish his right-wing credentials by rewriting history and praising people such as Horthy.
All this raises two questions. If Orban is indeed playing to latent (and often not so latent) strains of Hungarian antisemitism – antisemitism of the classical the-Jews-killed- Jesus-and-run-the-world variety – why did he invite Netanyahu? And the other question is why would Netanyahu want to go? Regarding Orban’s invitation, it is worth noting that when he visited Israel in the mid-2000s as head of the opposition, Netanyahu was one of the few politicians who paid attention to him, and the two struck up a good relationship.
When Orban then became prime minister in 2010, he began pushing for Netanyahu to visit.
One reason he wanted the visit was the election put him at odds with the European Union, which was concerned about what it saw as his authoritarian and illiberal leanings, and a visit by Netanyahu would give him a degree of legitimacy and respect. The visit never materialized.
Fast-forward to 2017, and two new elements have emerged making such a visit – from Orban’s perspective – even potentially more beneficial now.
The first is that the country is going to elections in 2018, and still remains relatively isolated in the EU. World leaders are not exactly beating a path to Orban’s door, so photo opportunities of a visit by Netanyahu – a recognized world figure in much of the world – can help Orban domestically by showing that it is not only the leaders of Kazakhstan and Russia who come calling.
The other new element is the election of US President Donald Trump. Orban was one of the first world leaders to applaud Trump when he won the Republican nomination last summer, and he is keen on improving ties with a Washington that, under Barack Obama, kept him at arm’s length because of his brand of illiberal democracy.
In trying to develop close ties with Trump, the old adage that the road to Washington leads through Jerusalem resonates in Budapest as it does in some other capitals around the world. Netanyahu’s good relationship with Trump is something Orban apparently would like to leverage.
Moreover, this trip is not only a bilateral one, and Netanyahu will also be meeting with the leaders of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, the other three members of the Visegrad group. The importance of this group inside the EU should not be exaggerated, and participation by Netanyahu will give it a degree of media attention that will temporarily enhance its stature, something that is also in Orban’s interests.
But why would Netanyahu want to make the trip? First of all, because the country has a relatively large Jewish community, estimated at between 100,000 and 120,000, making it – after France and Britain – the third-largest Jewish community in the EU. Visits by the Israeli prime minister are important gestures of encouragement to the local Jewish community.
Second, because Hungary is on the side of those countries inside the EU who are favorably disposed toward Israel. If, on the one side, there are hypercritical states like Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal and even France, on the other side are countries like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Greece.
Hungary is more aligned with the latter group, and goes to bat for Israel inside the EU from time to time. For instance, in 2015 Hungary’s foreign minister came to Israel and unequivocally came out against the EU’s policy of labeling goods from the settlements.
While Hungary has not broken from the consensus EU positions on Israel-related votes in international forums, when there is a vote in the UN or another international body on Israel, and the EU countries split, Hungary is generally on the side of those who either abstain or vote for Israel, rather than voting against. Prime-ministerial trips such as these are also meant to reinforce those patterns and tendencies.