Viktor Orban, Hungary's controversial prime minister, set to begin Israel trip

Orban, reelected easily to a third term in April, is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, as well as President Reuven Rivlin.

July 18, 2018 08:31
4 minute read.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during Hungary's National Day celebrations in Budapest

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during Hungary's National Day celebrations in Budapest. (photo credit: MARKO DJURICA / REUTERS)


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Viktor Orban, Hungary’s right-wing, anti-immigrant prime minister whom critics accuse of having authoritarian tendencies, is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday for a two-day visit sure to generate a healthy dose of criticism and controversy.

Orban, reelected easily to a third term in April, is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, as well as President Reuven Rivlin.

Hungary's anti-immigrant leader Orban wins a third term, April 9, 2018 (Reuters)Also on his schedule is a visit to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and a meeting – uncommon for visiting prime ministers – with Chief Rabbi David Lau. He is not scheduled to go to the Palestinian Authority.

When the visit was announced earlier this month, Opposition MKs Yair Lapid and Tamar Zandberg came out against it. Lapid said it was “worrisome” that Netanyahu was turning Israel into the best friends of European regimes that were increasingly becoming illiberal. Zandberg said that Netanyahu should not be giving legitimacy to Orban, whom some accuse of fanning the flames of antisemitism.

Earlier this week, Israel’s Ambassador to Hungary Yossi Amrani told the Hungarian television channel ATV that “Hungary and Israel are allies, partners and friends.”

Amrani, referring to Hungary’s consistent support inside the EU and in international forums for Israel, said: “As an Israeli, I am quite thankful to Hungary for its support of Israel. You as a Hungarian can be proud of the moral support, the leadership and the courage your government [and] your diplomats are showing in different international arenas.”

For example, among EU countries, Hungary has consistently abstained rather than vote against Israel in the UN. It abstained in December in the UN General Assembly vote condemning the US for moving its embassy to Jerusalem; in May when the UN Human Rights Commission voted to establish an investigative committee into the violence along the Gaza border; and last month, when the general assembly condemned the Gaza violence and passed a resolution calling for protection of the Palestinian civilian population.
Hungary was also instrumental in thwarting an EU resolution in December that would have condemned the US for its decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Israel, according to a Channel Ten report, is also helping Hungary diplomatically. Following a request to Netanyahu from Orban last year, Israel – the report stated – has worked to try and open doors for Budapest in Washington, including meetings earlier this year between the US secretary of state and the Hungarian foreign minister, and a meeting between the two countries’ national security advisors.

Last summer, just before Netanyahu went to Budapest for a summit to meet with Orban as well as the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Hungarian prime minister praised Miklos Horthy, who was Hungary’s leader during World War II when 600,000 of the country’s 800,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Netanyahu’s trip also triggered criticism in Israel because it came in the midst of an anti-immigrant billboard campaign by the Hungarian government, which many felt had antisemitic overtones because it used the image of George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish financier who is a harsh Orban critic. Soros also happens to be a harsh critic of Israel’s policies.

Amrani, in his television interview, took issue with characterizations of Hungary as an antisemitic country.

“What do we have in Hungary? More than a quarter of a million Israeli tourists traveling here, and they are safe. You have the largest Jewish community in Central Europe; my information is that they feel safe as well. And you have the rebirth of Jewish life in this country, with an investment in hospitals, in the renovation of synagogues, in Jewish culture. This means respect; this means integration and a certain reverence for Jewish culture,” he said.

“This is not antisemitism, by my definition of antisemitism. I think Hungarians, when people accuse them of being antisemites, should ask for proof. They should be on the offensive, and not be on the defensive of this issue.”

Orban’s visit comes less than two weeks after Netanyahu came under a barrage of criticism for agreeing to a declaration on the Holocaust with the Polish government which critics said significantly downplayed the role of Poles in the genocide.

That declaration was part of a deal whereby Poland would decriminalize a clause in a controversial bill that would have made it a crime punishable by three years in prison for saying “Polish death camps,” rather than “German death camps in Poland.”

The Polish government, like the Hungarian one, is being accused of having anti-democratic tendencies. And, like Hungary, it is also among Israel’s strongest diplomatic supporters inside the EU.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International called on Yad Vashem to cancel Orban’s planned visit to the site, and for public protests if he is allowed to visit.

“Yad Vashem has served for years to legitimize for the Israeli government cooperation and diplomatic relations with leaders who are tyrannical, fascist, antisemitic and war criminals, in order to gain support for various Israeli actions that violate human rights and international law,” the statement said.

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