ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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In apparent gesture to Netanyahu, Orban to move Hungary’s embassy to Jerusalem

Foreign Ministry sources link decision by Budapest to Hungarian leader’s desire to help out PM amid controversy over plans to weaken judiciary, which have been likened to Hungary

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

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 will move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem next month, apparently in a special gesture to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban.

The two reached an agreement on the matter in recent days, with the details hashed out during intensive talks between Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Hungary’s top diplomat Peter Szijjarto, senior Foreign Ministry officials told Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew language sister site, on Friday.

The move will make Hungary the first European Union member state to open an embassy in Jerusalem, which the bloc opposes in the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Senior Foreign Ministry sources who confirmed the planned embassy transfer linked the move to Orban’s desire to help out Netanyahu, granting the premier a diplomatic achievement amid political instability over his government’s contentious plans to overhaul Israel’s judicial system.

Netanyahu has long had close relations with Orban, who has been in power since 2010. Their bond has further tightened 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.

During a visit to Israel in 2019, Orban promised to establish a trade office with “diplomatic status” in Jerusalem, which opened several months later.

“This is a very exciting moment for us because it’s the first European diplomatic mission opened in Jerusalem in many decades and three Hungarian diplomats are going to be assigned to this office for trade purposes,” Netanyahu said then at the opening ceremony, which he attended alongside Szijjarto. “That’s important for trade, for diplomacy and for the move that Hungary is leading right now to change the attitude in Europe toward Jerusalem.”

“And there’s a plot waiting for you right next to the American embassy,” Netanyahu added at the time, noting US president Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US mission there in 2018.

Hungarian FM Péter Szijjártó and PM Benjamin Netanyahu open Hungary’s trade mission in central Jerusalem, March 19, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Following the United States, several other countries have since moved their embassies to Jerusalem or announced their intention to do so, with Hungary now agreeing with Israel to transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital.

Orban is a controversial leader in both Europe and globally, having drawn criticism for curbing the independence of Hungary’s judiciary and media, and for other moves he has taken to bolster his authority. He has previously spoken of making Hungary an “illiberal democracy.”

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.

Comparisons between the two countries have again come to the fore as Netanyahu’s new government seeks to advance proposals that would limit the power of Israel’s judiciary, similar to ones pushed by Orban over the past decade in Hungary.

In August 2021, Orban lamented in an interview with Fox News that Netanyahu’s election loss was a “challenge” for him and praised the Israeli leader 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.

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.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds a copy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s memoir on November 3, 2022. (Viktor Orban/Twitter)

Orban has also been criticized for targeting Holocaust survivor and left-wing philanthropist George Soros, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and financier known for his left-wing philanthropy, who he has called 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 denunciations, it continued and in 2018 the Soros-founded Central European University was forced to relocate from Budapest.

In 2019, Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid said that if elected prime minister, he would demand that the Hungarian premier apologize for the “antisemitic campaign” against Soros. Lapid did not end up following through on that promise when he served as premier for the second half of 2022.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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