Hungary’s controversial Orban to begin two-day Israel visit Wednesday

Hungarian PM will visit Yad Vashem and Western Wall, as well as meet with Netanyahu in a sign of burgeoning ties between the two leaders

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) hold a Rubik's Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, on July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/ GPO/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) hold a Rubik's Cube at the Hungary-Israel Business Forum in Budapest, Hungary, on July 19, 2017. (Haim Zach/ GPO/ Flash90)

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban is set to arrive in Israel Wednesday for a two-day visit in the country, marking his first time in the Jewish state, in a follow-up to last year’s visit to Budapest by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The trip is a striking sign of burgeoning ties between Netanyahu and the controversial Hungarian statesman, who has been accused of playing up anti-Semitic stereotypes, and comes following reports of Israeli efforts to lobby the US to end isolation of the man considered a symbol of Europe’s move toward the hard right.

Orban, who is traveling to Israel with his foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, will land at Ben Gurion Airport Wednesday evening and immediately travel to Jerusalem to meet at the Knesset with Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.

On Thursday, Orban will meet with Foreign Ministry Director General Yuval Rotem before beginning the official schedule of his trip, which will start with a meeting with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, ties with Orban have warmed, prompting criticism from the local Jewish community over the Hungarian prime minister’s attacks on Jewish billionaire George Soros, which critics say toy with anti-Semitic stereotypes, and his past praise for a former Nazi ally.

On a four-day official visit in Hungary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban walk during the reception ceremony in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017. (Balazs Mohai/MTI via AP)

After the meeting with Netanyahu, which will include statements to the press, Orban will meet with President Reuven Rivlin and then, in the afternoon, tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center.

A year ago, Orban hailed as an “exceptional statesman” the country’s wartime leader and Nazi ally Miklos Horthy, who enacted anti-Jewish laws and under whose watch over half a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Then, he launched and defended a poster campaign targeting the Hungarian-born Soros, accusing him of seeking to flood the country with refugees.

On Thursday evening, Orban will be hosted for dinner by the prime minister and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, at their official residence in Jerusalem. On Friday, before returning to Hungary, he will visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The trip comes a day after reports in the Israeli media that, under Netanyahu’s orders, Israel has lobbied the US administration to “open doors” to Orban’s government, which has traditionally been kept at arm’s length due to its ultra-nationalist stances and the prime minister’s embracing of what he has termed an “illiberal democracy.”

Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, speaks at an event in Detroit, Monday, June 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

According to Channel 10, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and other Israeli officials have met with members of the Trump administration “on a number of occasions” to encourage establishing stronger ties with Hungary under Orban.

“The message we gave to everyone who was willing to listen was that the relations with Hungary are very important and that Israel would want to see US-Hungarian ties getting warmer,” an Israeli official was quoted as saying.

The official reportedly cited Orban’s campaign against Soros as a reason for why the US may be interested in closer ties.

Orban made strident opposition to immigration a central part of his government’s message, along with attacks on Soros, accusing him of seeking to flood the country with refugees and advancing legislation to curb the operation of organizations funded by Soros. Soros denies the accusations and Orban’s critics say the moves against NGOs are designed to restrict space for civil society in Hungary, an EU member state.

This poster featuring US billionaire George Soros in Szekesfehervar, Hungary, was part of a government campaign, July 6, 2017. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

In light of both the anti-Soros campaign and Orban’s praise of Horthy, Israel’s ambassador to Budapest, Yossi Amrani, initially sided with Hungary’s Jews in criticizing Orban. But at Netanyahu’s behest, Israel later retracted its criticism and accepted the government’s clarifications.

Netanyahu was reportedly the first foreign leader to congratulate Orban on his reelection after a landslide victory in April, in which he led his Fidesz party to win 49.6 percent of the votes.

In that phone call, Netanyahu invited his Hungarian counterpart to visit Israel, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office at the time. The Israeli premier also thanked Orban for “Hungary’s support for Israel in international forums,” the statement said.

Netanyahu met Orban during a four-day official visit to Hungary last July, and similarly praised the Hungarian leader at that time for his support for Israel.

“You’ve done that time and again,” Netanyahu said. “We appreciate this stance, not only because it’s standing with Israel, but it’s also standing with the truth.”

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