Ashkenazi denies agreeing with Hungary on need to fight illegal migration

New FM says he and Hungarian counterpart Péter Szijjártó never even discussed the issue; Budapest vows to continue blocking anti-Israel statements in international forums

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto in his office in Budapest, Hungary, June 14, 2019. (Attila Kovacs/MTI via AP)
Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto in his office in Budapest, Hungary, June 14, 2019. (Attila Kovacs/MTI via AP)

In what seemed like it may turn into the first diplomatic crisis of his three-day-old career as Israel’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Thursday denied having agreed with Hungary on the need to fight illegal immigration, refuting a claim his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, made after their first telephone conversation.

“The parties agreed that governments that are founded on patriotic, national values and that enforce national interests are being attacked in international political life as a result of hypocrisy, bias, and political correctness,” a readout of the two men’s discussion provided by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry stated.

“In view of the fact that both Hungary and Israel have governments of this nature, the further development of strategic cooperation between the two countries is guaranteed,” Ashkenazi and Szijjártó said in a joint statement, according to the readout.

“Hungary and Israel share a common standpoint with relation to the issue of retaining identity and the importance of sovereignty and security, as well as with respect to the need to take action against illegal migration,” the joint statement was said to have read.

Gabi Ashkenazi in Tel Aviv, February 19, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But a spokesperson for Ashkenazi told The Times of Israel that those issues never came up during their friendly conversation. “Gabi thanked him for Hungary’s support for Israel in international forums and they agreed to stay in touch. But they never discussed immigration at all,” the spokesperson said.

A few hours after the statement was issued, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry said the part about Jerusalem and Budapest agreeing on sovereignty, security and the need take action against illegal migration “was mistranslated as a joint statement” and should be attributed to the Hungarian side only.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a political ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — has been controversial in Europe due to his harsh opposition to Brussels’ immigration policies, as well as some domestic measures critics say mean Hungary can no longer be considered a democracy.

Orban’s right-wing government has instituted a series of restrictive changes in recent years to the country’s asylum and immigration laws that have made it nearly impossible for asylum-seekers presenting their applications at the Serbian border to win protection in Hungary.

Following the recent passage of a bill allowing Orban to rule by decree, Hungary can no longer be considered a democracy, US-based human rights organization Freedom House declared earlier this month.

Hungary is one of several Central and Eastern European countries that have “dropped even the pretense that they play by the rules of democracy,” the group said in its annual Nations in Transit report.

These countries “openly attack democratic institutions and are working to restrict individual freedoms.”

On March 30, Hungary’s parliament approved a bill giving Orban’s government extraordinary powers during the coronavirus pandemic, and setting no end date for them. The legislation has been criticized by opposition parties, international institutions and civic groups for failing to include an expiration date for the government’s ability to rule by decree.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban replies to an independent MP during a question and answer session of the Parliament on a vote to approve legislation that extends a state of emergency and gives the government extraordinary powers to enact measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. March 30, 2020. (Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP)

In their call Thursday, Szijjártó also told Ashkenazi that Hungary will continue to block anti-Israel statements in international forums.

Szijjártó assured his Israeli counterpart “that Israel can continue to count on Hungary’s fair and balanced standpoint,” according to the readout of their conversation.

The right-wing government in Budapest, together with Austria, has recently blocked several attempts by the European Union to issue joint statements warning Israel against unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank.

At the EU, statements need the consensus of all 27 member states. In the absence of unanimity, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, has issued statements in his own name warning Jerusalem against its supposed plan to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank.

Most member states echoed Borrell’s statement, but Hungary and Austria said they are unwilling to preemptively censure Israel for something that hasn’t happened yet.

“Mr. Szijjártó told the Israeli Foreign Minister that Hungary will continue to refrain from supporting statements that condemn Israel in both the EU and the United Nations, and also regards the procedure against Israel by the International Criminal Court as unfounded,” the readout of Szijjártó’s conversation with Ashkenazi said.

Hungary was one of seven states that submitted written legal opinions that supported Israel’s position on the question of whether the ICC has jurisdiction to proceed with an investigation into possible war crimes committed on the Palestinian territories.

Incoming Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020 (Foreign Ministry)

Ashkenazi and Szijjártó agreed to meet in person soon, the readout concluded.

Israel has been very critical of statements that congratulated it on the new government but in the same vein expressed misgivings at the planned annexation.

“This ‘megaphone diplomacy’ is not a substitute for intimate diplomatic dialogue and will not advance the role the EU is seeking to fulfill,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said earlier this week in response to Borrell’s latest statement.

Ashkenazi, in his inaugural speech as top diplomat, said Monday that Israel expects “a significant dialogue with our allies in Europe,” Haiat noted. (Ashkenazi’s exact quote was: “Israel and Europe are important partners, and I am sure that the relations we share will be fruitful and beneficial for both sides.”)

In that speech, Ashkenazi also hailed the US administration’s plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a “historic opportunity” to shape Israel’s borders, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing a unilateral annexation of West Bank territory.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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