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Analysis

Orban’s victory strengthens his ability to defy the EU, including on Israel

Hungary’s nationalist leader is accused of being a Putin ally and undermining democracy, but Hungarians want their interests served first

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during his visit to Israel on July 20, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City during his visit to Israel on July 20, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban won an overwhelming electoral victory last Sunday, protecting his Fidesz Party supermajority against a wide spectrum of united opposition parties.

Orban is the bane of liberal European politicians, a symbol of a nationalist, authoritarian trend at odds with the values espoused by Brussels.

Some of the accusations against Orban are serious: that he is eroding Hungarian democracy, that he seeks to minimize Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and trades in antisemitic tropes, that he is in bed with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Those allegations will continue to be debated in Europe and elsewhere.

But for Israel, and those in its government concerned with realpolitik, Orban’s victory is a diplomatic blessing: Hungary under Orban has proven to be a sturdy friend of Israel in European institutions.

In January, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked Orban for “Hungary’s steadfast support for Israel in international institutions.” On Thursday, President Isaac Herzog sent a letter to the Hungarian prime minister congratulating him on his win, calling him “a friend and ally.”

Orban’s unmistakable electoral victory gives the Hungarian leader a firm mandate in his country to stand against various EU positions — including on Israel.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets cheering supporters during an election night rally in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

‘A strong new mandate’

Budapest has in recent years been Jerusalem’s staunchest supporter in the European Union, blocking several efforts to issue statements critical of Israeli policies. 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.

Because of the nature of the EU foreign policy process, even the smallest countries have the power to thwart European initiatives. The bloc makes decisions based on consensus, meaning that condemnations of Israel have to be approved by all 27 member states — including the traditionally pro-Israel Visegrad Group, an alliance of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Hungary’s ambassador to Israel, Levente Benkő, hinted at Hungary’s increased confidence in its discussions with Brussels.

Left to right: Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Jerusalem, March 11, 2021 (Haim Tzah/GPO)

“With one of the highest turnouts ever recorded at elections since the fall of communism, Hungarians sent a very clear and unequivocal message by giving a strong new mandate for the current government,” Benkő told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

“This is a democratic legitimacy that can hardly be overlooked by our partners in ongoing debates between the European Commission and Hungary. Especially that many aspects of these debates involve issues which are still well within the exclusive competence of member states — and we would like it to stay that way.”

“The elections have in no way altered Hungary’s steadfast support of Israel in international organizations and in recognizing her inalienable right to self-defense,” Benkő continued.

Moreover, Orban is less isolated in Europe than many believe.

The Ukraine problem

Hungary has taken flak in the continent over its opposition to a sweeping European embargo on Russian natural gas and oil. Heavily reliant on Russian energy to heat its homes and power its manufacturers, Hungary is vocally opposed to shutting down Russian pipelines with no realistic alternative in place. Moreover, Budapest is currently shipping natural gas into Ukraine, and in the event of an embargo on Russian imports, is likely to cut off its supply to Ukraine before it lets its own citizens freeze.

The tanker Sun Arrows loads its cargo of liquefied natural gas from the Sakhalin-2 project in the port of Prigorodnoye, Russia, October 29, 2021. (AP Photo, File)

But many other EU countries, while pushing renewables over investment in fossil fuels, are also in no position to cut off Russian energy.

Germany, which is shutting down its nuclear power plants, also needs Russia to fuel its massive economy, and publicly opposes a full-scale embargo. Austria, Bulgaria and other central European countries have also voiced their opposition to the embargo.

At the same time, Orban has been willing to support all the rounds of EU sanctions against Russia to this point, citing the need for unity in Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a joint news conference after their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on Sept. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

And though Orban will not supply lethal weapons to Kyiv or let them go through Hungary directly to Ukraine, he does permit lethal arms to cross the country to Poland, then on into Ukraine. Hungary has also accepted more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other European country.

Most significantly, Orban is allowing thousands of NATO troops to be moved into the country as the alliance seeks to enhance its deterrence against Moscow.

That hasn’t stopped the Hungarian leader from getting into a bitter public war of words with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ahead of the elections, the Ukrainian leader called Budapest the “Russian branch in Europe,” and said Brussels should “stop listening to the excuses of Budapest.”

During his victory speech, Orban singled out Zelensky as one of the forces he overcame in the election, referencing “the left at home, the international left all around, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Soros empire with all its money, the international mainstream media, and in the end, even the Ukrainian president.”

A Ukrainian refugee family and other Ukrainians fleeing their country arrive at the Ukrainian-Hungarian border crossing in Tiszabecs, on February 27, 2022. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP)

Concerns about the far-right

Despite his consistent attacks on liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros — rhetoric condemned by Jewish groups in Hungary as antisemitic — Orban has been vocal about his distaste for antisemitism. During a press conference Wednesday, Orban stressed that his zero-tolerance policy for antisemitism will remain in place.

He also defeated an opposition alliance that welcomed the far-right Jobbik party into its ranks.

In a political bloc similar to the one that brought down Benjamin Netanyahu last year, the United for Hungary alliance came together with the sole purpose of getting Orban out of office. It included the Green Party and Hungarian Socialist Party on the left, and Jobbik, which critics say is a neo-Nazi party, on its right flank.

Followers of the radical nationalist Jobbik party attend the commemoration of the 1848 uprising against the Hapsburg rule in Budapest, Hungary, March 15, 2015. (AP Photo/MTI, Tamas Kovacs)

The plan failed spectacularly. Many far-right voters refused to vote for communists, and left-wingers didn’t want to support fascists.

V4, or V3+1?

Despite Orban’s clear win, there are some worrying signs for Israel. The war in Ukraine has exposed fault lines between Visegrad’s Hungary and Slovakia on one side, and the staunchly anti-Russian Czechs and Poles on the other.

“In the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, it seems that Poland is making a U-turn, and is returning to the EU embrace,” said Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, director of the program on Israel–Europe relations at Mitvim. “This isolates Hungary, and the EU has begun to employ Article 7 against it.”

Members of Congress give Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a standing ovation before he speaks in a virtual address to Congress in the US Capitol Visitors Center Congressional Auditorium in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times via AP, Pool, File)

In 2018, the European Parliament initiated the Article 7 procedure against Budapest for allegedly undermining the bloc’s democratic values and rule of law. This could result in the country losing its voting rights. It has also taken the same steps against Poland, but has not moved to advanced stages of the procedure against either country.

“Without Poland’s backing to stop this move, Orban will find himself in an even more direct confrontation with the EU,” Sion-Tzidkiyahu continued. “He is already in a budget clash with them.”

Two days after Orban’s win at the polls, the European Commission said it would cut funding from Hungary for violating rule-of-law standards.

File: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2021 (Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

And yet despite the tensions in the pro-Israel bloc, it isn’t likely to disappear or stop backing Jerusalem. The four countries, like others that were in the Soviet bloc, represent populations that are far more conservative, nationalist and often religious than their peers in Western Europe.

Hungary’s policies might anger Ukraine and many EU countries, but Orban has shown that Hungarians expect their leaders to put their interests first, especially when it comes to Russia. While many have sympathy with the Ukrainians, they know it’s not their fight, and see no reason to provoke Russia with measures that won’t end the war anyway.

Which, in the end, isn’t too different from what Israelis expect from Bennett when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.

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