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HomeBalkansThe Roots of Orban’s Strong Bond with Israel and Its PM

The Roots of Orban’s Strong Bond with Israel and Its PM

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Foreign policy is complicated, only venture into it if you understand what you are talking about: that was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s riposte when the leader of the far-right Mi Hazank (Our Homeland) party, Laszlo Toroczkai, asked him in parliament why Hungary voted against an Israeli ceasefire at the UN.

The Orban government’s foreign policy and its solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people may indeed strike many as complicated, or at least contradictory, in light of the fact its propaganda has for years portrayed the Jewish, Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros as public enemy No. 1.

Hungary’s government blames Soros and the NGOs funded by his foundation, in addition to Brussels’ “misguided migration policy”, for the EU’s illegal immigration problem, which, according to the governing Fidesz party, is damaging to Judeo-Christian Europe because, sooner or later, it will lead to the Islamisation of the old continent.

It is precisely this position that has helped link and forge a political alliance between Viktor Orban, who has been prime minister of Hungary since 2010, and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, and through them between the Fidesz and Likud parties.

George Soros is regarded as dangerous an enemy among Likud supporters as he is on the Hungarian right. The Israeli right is convinced that Soros’s money is indirectly going to Palestinian organisations that seek the destruction of Israel. Soros’s Israeli critics, therefore, accuse the billionaire of supporting antisemites, while the Hungarian government is regularly accused of being antisemitic precisely because it has used billboards to attack the businessman of Jewish origin.

In fact, the Hungarian government’s anti-Soros stance is not directed at Jews per se, but rather at left-liberal political forces, including those NGOs which, according to the Orban government, want to influence international politics without political authority. Nonetheless, the Hungarian far right has also been comfortable with the campaign against Soros, because it fits with their conspiracy theories about Jews.

Even so, the Soros campaign, led by Fidesz, has divided Israelis. So, when Orban visited Israel in 2018 and went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, he was met by protesters who berated him.

A long friendship

Orban and Netanyahu’s relationship goes back a long way. Orban, who first sat as prime minister between 1998 and 2002, initially met Netanyahu in 2005. Orban was in opposition at the time, while Netanyahu, who was first prime minister between 1996 and 1999, was serving as Israel’s finance minister. Even then, Orban was impressed by Netanyahu’s vision of how a small country like Israel could be turned into a strong nation-state.

Orban’s friendship with Netanyahu has transformed Fidesz’s Middle East policy over time. Orban was accused by his political opponents on the liberal-left of having antisemites in his camp as early as 1998, during his first term as prime minister. This criticism was based on the fact that Orban, who had begun his political career as a liberal, anti-Communist in the late 1980s, had steered Fidesz to the right from the mid-1990s onwards.

Because the right-wing and far-right parties of the time bore heavy responsibility for the deportation and subsequent murder of some half a million people of Jewish origin in Hungary during World War II, antisemitism has haunted the right for decades. It was no different in the 1990s, so when Fidesz subsumed the right-wing camp, antisemitic figures also emerged in the party’s intellectual milieu.

The US leadership (the Clinton administration) during the first Orban government resented this. But Orban was unconcerned by these criticisms, which he saw as an unfounded attack by his left-wing, liberal political opponents who had better lobbying power in Washington. Orban knew that he had to win over the antisemitic right wing, which those close to the prime minister called “tactical antisemitism”.

Because of this “tactical antisemitism”, when Orban’s government fell in 2002 Fidesz was branded antisemitic. It was partly to neutralise this that Orban travelled to Israel in 2005, where he not only found common ground with Netanyahu, but also discovered he could learn much from him.

Indeed, Orban and Netanyahu had one thing in common in their political careers, and thus in the fate of Fidesz and Likud: they both tried to stand up against strong left-wing headwinds and led their parties to victory. When Orban and Netanyahu lost the 2006 parliamentary elections, Fidesz and Likud were already seen as sister parties. By then, Fidesz had managed to shed its antisemitic label, and the Hungarian far right even mocked Orban and Likud for having too close a relationship.

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