Hungarian Minister Gerley Gulyás defended his country’s oft-criticized judicial system during a public interview at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, as activists rallied against him outside.
Unlike Israel, Hungary has “a written constitution, adopted in 2011,” Gulyás said on Wednesday evening, explaining that the democratic nature of his government is “not a question.”
Gulyás, who is a Minister of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Office is the first official from his country to visit Israel since the new government was sworn in at the end of December.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long enjoyed a close relationship with Orbán, often showering each other with praises and lauding their deep bilateral ties.
Recently, analysts have drawn further comparisons between the two leaders as Netanyahu’s government pushes for judicial reforms that would curb the judiciary’s influence, similar to the ones Orban’s government has passed since he came into power.
Pro-democracy protestors take to the streets
Outside, a group of 25-30 protestors who said they feared Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan would transform their country into an authoritarian democracy akin to that of Hungary, stood outside blowing whistles, beating drums and yelling into horns.
“I'm demonstrating for our democracy; here, there is a representative of the Hungarian government, which for us represents the most anti-democratic regime in Europe, one of the most anti-democratic,” Jack Corcos, one of the protestors, said. “We are very worried, because we don't want the same to happen here.”
Inside the hotel, Gulyás was interviewed by The Jerusalem Post’s Senior Contributing Editor and Diplomatic Correspondent Lahav Harkov, who pressed him on Hungary’s judicial system and the recent attempts to liberalize it in response to sanctions from the EU.
The minister defended Hungary’s judiciary, arguing that in the nation, a judge cannot be a member of a political party. In Israel, he explained, the nation is still deciding how to organize the balance of powers, while it is more solidified in Hungary.
Hungary, like Israel, Gulyás said, was often too harshly criticized and isolated in its geographical region.
“Today, I had a very good conversation with two members of the Israeli government and one mentioned that he has a feeling that we are in the same situation as Israel in the Arabi world, as it seems to be [that] Hungary [is] in the European Union,” Gulyás said.
He deflected questions about potential plans by Hungary to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying that it was the prime minister’s decision.
Since former US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy, “every country has to decide yes or no,” said Gulyas, adding that “the question is only the time of the decision.”
Gulyás also spoke about Hungary’s opposition to Sweden joining NATO, noting that Sweden has often made “accusations” that there is no rule of law in Hungary. He said that to support Sweden, he would want to open an “open dialogue” about the nation’s critiques.
Several audience members – a small, handpicked crowd of journalists, analysts and diplomates – asked Gulyás about antisemitism in Hungary. According to a survey from the Anti-Defamation League, a leading anti-hate NGO, more than one in three people hold a range of antisemitic beliefs.
“The most important, the real and official line of the government, has a zero-tolerance against antisemitism,” Gulyás responded. “If you investigate the situation of the Jewish community in Europe, you will say that the Jewish community in Hungary, especially in Budapest, because of the historic tragedy, is living in peace, safety and flourishing cultural life.”
Outside of the hotel, demonstrator Roni Weinstein disagreed. “The extent of antisemitic events has risen immensely; following the regime, the last two years of Orban, he speaks extensively about strangers, he speaks about Muslims,” Weinstein said. “Jews are part of his manual in this context. So people, people just reflect what they say, officially or unofficially, and they show it by antisemitic activities.”