Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke for the first time with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, on Monday evening, thanking the right-wing leader for “Hungary’s steadfast support for Israel in international institutions,” even while top ministers in his cabinet have publicly lambasted Orban in the past.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Bennett and Orban agreed during a phone call to “continue bilateral cooperation in a range of fields and to maintain regular contact.”
The Hungarian embassy said Bennett had initiated the call.
Haaretz reported that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was personally involved in arranging the call, having spoken several times with his Hungarian counterpart in recent months. It said Lapid is planning an official visit to Hungary, a trip that has been scheduled twice but canceled due to coronavirus restrictions.
However, Lapid has in the past made fiery remarks about Orban, even accusing the Hungarian leader of running an antisemitic election campaign. When he was opposition chief, the centrist leader slammed then-premier Benjamin Netanyahu for having Orban pay an official visit in 2018.
“By hosting Orban, Netanyahu harms Israel’s national dignity and pride,” Lapid said at the time. “Netanyahu didn’t condemn Orban for praising Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian leader during World War II, who formed an alliance with [Adolf] Hitler and the Nazis and took an active role in the Holocaust of Hungarian Jews.”
Current Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said at the time — when she was in the opposition — that “those who praise leaders who collaborated with the Nazis, those who persecute human rights groups and the opposition in their country, are not wanted here.”
Human rights organizations have said Hungary can no longer be considered a democracy after its parliament approved a bill in March 2020 giving Orban’s government extraordinary powers during the coronavirus pandemic, and setting no end date for them.
Orban has also long targeted Holocaust survivor and left-wing philanthropist George Soros, calling him a “public enemy” for allegedly backing uncontrolled mass immigration. Jewish groups in the country condemned Orban’s anti-Soros campaign as antisemitic but despite widespread condemnations, it continued and in 2018 the Soros-founded Central European University was forced to relocate from Budapest.
In 2019, Lapid said that if elected prime minister, he would demand that the Hungarian premier apologize for the “antisemitic campaign” against Soros run by his government.
Lapid is set to become prime minister in August 2023 as part of his power-sharing deal with Bennett.
Budapest has in recent years been Jerusalem’s staunchest supporter in the European Union, blocking several efforts to issue statements critical of Israeli policies. For instance, in 2020, Hungary was one of the only countries that did not publicly speak out against Israel’s plan, since scuttled, to unilaterally annex swaths of the West Bank.
In August, Orban lamented in an interview with Fox News that the election loss of former prime minister Netanyahu was a “challenge” for him and praised Netanyahu as a “good friend” of Hungary. “When he was in power, he always invested a lot of energy in having a good relationship with central European countries,” he said.
“This is a totally new circumstance around Hungary,” he said. “For me as a politician, it’s a strong challenge.”
In June, Bennett was sworn in as prime minister after a diverse coalition of eight parties formed a new government ending Netanyahu’s 12-year rule.