FM Cohen headed to Hungary next week, with Orban meeting in the works

Top diplomat to also visit Austria, Czech Republic, and Slovakia on Europe tour; Budapest has been called model for proposed judicial overhaul

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen will be heading to Europe next week, stopping in Hungary, Austria, Croatia, and Slovakia.

He will meet his Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto, and, though the details remain up in the air, there is a possibility that he will meet with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban’s right-wing government has warm ties with Israel’s right and has supported the current government’s bid to overhaul the justice system, which resembles steps Budapest took several years ago.

Gergely Gulyas, the head of Orban’s office, was set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials earlier this month, but backed out because of the fight between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Gulyas would have been the first Hungarian official to visit Israel since the swearing-in of the new Israeli government.

Opponents of the government’s currently frozen plans to overhaul the judicial system have invoked efforts to transform the judiciary in Hungary, which Orban has sought to shape into an “illiberal democracy.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Orban’s Fidesz party took aim at the country’s courts after being elected to office in 2010, overhauling the constitution and increasing political control over the courts. The moves are seen as central to what critics call the country’s democratic backsliding in recent years.

Netanyahu has long had close relations with Orban, who has been in power since 2010. Their bond has tightened further since Netanyahu’s return to power after the general election in November, with the two showering praise upon each other and looking to further both bilateral ties and their own connection.

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, which has since been scuttled, to unilaterally annex swaths of the West Bank.

After Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc won parliamentary elections last year, Orban tweeted: “What a great victory for Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel! Hard times require strong leaders. Welcome back!” He attached a picture of himself holding Netanyahu’s new memoir.

During his Europe trip next week, Cohen will also participate in a meeting of the Austerlitz format, a regional forum of Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

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