In Israel, hard-right Hungarian PM hails himself and Netanyahu as ‘patriots’
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Netanyahu says Orban fights anti-Semitism, backs Israel

In Israel, hard-right Hungarian PM hails himself and Netanyahu as ‘patriots’

Meeting with the premier, Viktor Orban celebrates ‘excellent ties,’ vows ‘zero tolerance’ for anti-Semitism, claims Jew-hatred declining in Eastern Europe while rising in the West

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

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)
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)

The close ties between Israel and Hungary derive from the fact that both countries are led by “patriots,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Thursday in Jerusalem.

During a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the controversial Hungarian leader also asserted that there there was “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism in his country, claiming that while hatred of Jews is on the rise in Western Europe, it is declining in the eastern part of the continent.

The “excellent ties” between Budapest and Jerusalem are to a large extent the results of the close personal relationship between the two leaders, Orban said.

“I think that happens because both countries have a patriotic leader. And in this relationship between us I see evidence for the fact that a Hungarian patriot and a Jewish-Israeli patriot always find a common denominator between them,” he said, speaking in Hungarian through an interpreter.

Minister Ofir Akunis, right, greets Viktor Orban, center, and his wife Aniko Levai at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 18, 2018. (Foreign Ministry)

Orban went on to say that he and Netanyahu see “the challenges of the 21st century that lie before us with the same mind and from the same perspective.”

Both Israel and Hungary are concerned with the need to guarantee internal security and safeguarding their respective borders, he explained, alluding to the two countries’ hardline immigration policies.

“There is full agreement between us that security is the most important thing. Any nation has the right to defend its citizens. It’s our duty to provide our citizens with a sense of security,” he said.

Referring to Hungary’s geographic location, Orban said his country has a problem “with immigration and terrorism,” arguing that terrorists, ostensibly from the Middle East, are “abusing immigration routes to come to Europe.”

“We have to fight it,” he said.

‘Zero tolerance’ for anti-Semitism

Modern anti-Semitism exists in today’s Europe, Orban admitted, positing that the phenomenon is on the rise in the western part of the continent but decreasing in the east.

Budapest is ready to fully cooperate with Israel on the fight against Jew-hatred, he said, adding that anti-Israel agitation was “one form of anti-Semitism.”

“In Hungary there is zero tolerance for any form of anti-Semitism. Any Hungarian Jew is protected by the government,” he said. His government was proud, he continued, that Hungarian Jews can “openly and proudly celebrate their Jewish heritage and feel secure.”

Hungary is actively promoting Jewish life by renovating synagogues, repairing decrepit Jewish cemeteries and investing in Jewish education, Orban said.

Netanyahu, who spoke before Orban, said both Israel and Hungary “understand that the threat of radical Islam is real and can endanger Europe, us and our Arab neighbors.”

“Of all the sources of militant Islam, Iran is the greatest threat to our common civilization,” he said. “And by being here, in this county here, at the frontline of the battle against radical Islam, in many ways Israel is defending Europe.”

Netanyahu recalled his visit to Hungary, “seeing the things that are so evocative to the history of our people beginning with the birthplace of … Theodor Herzl. His birthplace, the beginning of Zionism, the reason that we are all here. It all began in Budapest.”

Netanyahu said the two men discussed the “tragedies that afflicted the people, the Jewish people on the soil of Hungary” and praised Orban for speaking “as a true friend of Israel, about the need to combat anti-Semitism. Antisemitism has been the scourge of the Jewish people for thousands of years. It claimed horrible tragedies, culminating in the greatest tragedy of them all – the Holocaust in the 20th century. It must be fought continuously, relentlessly, unambiguously,” he said.

Netanyahu noted that in March, Orban inaugurated the renovated synagogue in Subotica. “You said it was, ‘a moral duty that Jews live without fear and practice religion freely,'” he said, noting that Orban had allocated millions of dollars for the renovation of synagogues. Netanyahu added that “anti-Semitism continuously rears its head but these actions point to a positive direction, which we encourage all our friends to continue throughout Europe, throughout the world.”

Israel’s prime minister also cited “tremendous possibilities of cooperation between our two economies… in technology, in commerce, in tourism, in security and much more.”

The prime minister also thanked his Hungarian counterpart for standing up for Israel in international forums. Orban replied that he will continue to do so.

Orban arrived Wednesday evening for a two-day visit — his first to Israel — that has drawn criticism from Israeli opposition politicians and Jewish groups.

Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya (left) with Adolf Hitler, year unspecified (Wikimedia Commons)

MK Yair Lapid, for instance, lamented that Netanyahu, during the public part of their meeting, did not condemn Orban for having praised Hungarian wartime leader and Nazi ally Miklos Horthy.

Horthy “collaborated with the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, including members of my family,” Lapid charged. Netanyahu “has no mandate to forgive the murder of Holocaust victims. He has no mandate to remain silent in the face of modern anti-Semitism.”

Orban’s visit is as a followup to Netanyahu’s trip to Budapest last year.

“The visit will promote the good bilateral relations that are notably expressed in supporting Israel’s positions in European and international forums, and underlining the importance of continuing the struggle against anti-Semitism,” the Foreign Ministry statement said in a statement moments before Orban’s plane touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Burgeoning ties with the hard right

The trip is a striking sign of burgeoning ties between Netanyahu and the 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 the isolation of the man considered a symbol of Europe’s move toward the hard right.

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 Horthy.

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

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)

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.”

In a break with protocol for EU leaders who usually meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah during such visits, Orban has no scheduled talks with Palestinian leaders.

After the meeting with Netanyahu, Orban was set to meet with President Reuven Rivlin and then, in the afternoon, tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance center.

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.

Opposition lawmakers slammed the visit, censuring Netanyahu over his embrace of the controversial European statesman who once praised a former Nazi ally.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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