Israeli, Hungarian branches of Amnesty rap Netanyahu and Orban

In joint statement, organizations warn of ‘shrinking space’ allotted to human rights groups in both countries

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

An anti-Soros billboard with a swastika and Soros's name replaced by Viktor Orban's, seen in Budapest on July 17, 2017. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
An anti-Soros billboard with a swastika and Soros's name replaced by Viktor Orban's, seen in Budapest on July 17, 2017. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew from Paris to Hungary on Monday, the Israeli and Hungarian branches of the international human rights organization Amnesty International teamed up to express their concern over what they see as increasingly close ties between Netanyahu and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban.

The three-day visit — Netanyahu is due to have his first meeting with Orban on Tuesday morning — is the first by an Israeli premier since the end of Communism 26 years ago.

Netanyahu and Orban are both seen as involved in clamping down on left-leaning human rights groups critical of their respective policies, with both Budapest and Jerusalem pushing legislation that targets groups funded by foreign governments.

In their statement, the Hungarian and Israeli branches of Amnesty International “express their mutual concern at the shrinking space of human rights groups and individuals in their respective countries.”

They say that both Netanyahu and Orban are known “as leaders who thrive on hatred towards universal human values and norms, delegitimizing voices of advocates for human rights and running smear campaigns against activists and groups.”

Tag the Israeli Government and the Hungarian Government, and don't tell them which is guilty of which human rights…

Posted by Amnesty International Israel on Monday, July 17, 2017

The statement criticizes them for promoting legislation against non-governmental organizations working for democracy and human rights, and says they should be held accountable for “human rights violations” which contravene international law.

Molly Malakar, program director at Amnesty International Israel, called on “democratic organizations” to closely follow reports that the Hungarian premier is planning to build a fence to stop migrants from entering, noting Israel’s “extensive experience” in building fences and walls in the West Bank.

A poster with US billionaire George Soros is pictured on July 6, 2017, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)
A poster with US billionaire George Soros is pictured on July 6, 2017, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. (AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

Julia Ivan, head of the Hungarian branch of Amnesty International, appealed to the two leaders to respect human rights, including of those “who express uncomfortable truths.”

Both Israel and Hungary have passed laws that impose restrictions on non-governmental organizations in receipt of funding from foreign donors — a move that human rights activists in both countries see as attempts to stifle criticism of government.

Israel’s law, passed in June 2016, dramatically expanded transparency requirements for those Israeli NGOs, numbering fewer than two-dozen, that get most of their funding from foreign governments. The law has been attacked for unfairly targeting left-wing NGOs critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and for seeking to brand them as agents of foreign governments.

Hungary’s law, passed last month, which similarly targets NGOs with foreign funders, has been seen as a tool with which to fight George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation supports NGOs who support asylum-seekers.

The Atlantic magazine quoted Soros telling the Brussels Economic Forum last month, “[Orban] cast himself in the role of the defender of Hungarian sovereignty and me as a shady currency speculator who uses his money to flood Europe — particularly his native Hungary — with illegal immigrants as part of some vague but nefarious plot.

“I have strenuously resisted Orban’s attempts to translate our ideological differences into personal animosity — and I have succeeded.”

The visit has been marred by Netanyahu’s perceived soft response to the Hungarian campaign against Soros which many see as anti-Semitic.

At issue is a Hungarian poster campaign showing a large picture of the Hungarian-born American Jewish businessman George Soros, smiling, with the text, “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh,” a reference to government claims that Soros wants to force Hungary to allow in migrants.

The image of the laughing Jew who would laugh no more was used by Hitler from January 1939 onwards, and the billboard campaign has provoked ab anti-Semitic reaction, according to leaders of Hungary’s 100,000-strong Jewish community.

Some in Israel called for Netanyahu to cancel his Hungary trip because of the posters — which, it was said, would be down by the time he arrives — with Israel’s ambassador saying it “evokes sad memories (and) sows hatred and fear.”

But hours later, a Foreign Ministry statement backtracked — reportedly at Netanyahu’s behest.

While Israel “deplores” anti-Semitism, Soros “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organisations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself,” it said.

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