In rare move, Foreign Ministry fetes Hungary’s Orban as he arrives in Israel

Ministry touts visit as promoting bilateral ties, hails prime minister for combating anti-Semitism despite criticism over his praise for Nazi-era leader and anti-Soros campaign

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

The Foreign Ministry welcomed controversial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as he arrived at Ben-Gurion airport Wednesday for a visit that has drawn criticism from Israeli politicians and Jewish groups.

A statement by the ministry said the two-day visit will promote bilateral ties, strengthen European support for Israel and increase cooperation in combating anti-Semitism. It is very rare for the ministry to issue a statement welcoming a visiting head of state.

Orban’s two-day visit is his first to the Jewish state, in a followup to last year’s trip to Budapest by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“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.

The statement specifically mentioned the Visegrad group of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which has worked to defend Israel from European Union condemnation. Earlier this year, the four countries helped block an EU statement condemning the US transfer of its embassy to Jerusalem.

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 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 a former Nazi ally.

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 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.”

Orban, who is traveling to Israel with his foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, was scheduled to immediately travel to Jerusalem after landing 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, who also serves as foreign minister.

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

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.

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.

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