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


Hungary’s solidarity with Israel may seem contradictory in light of its propaganda against US billionaire Soros and the historical antisemitic figures in the Fidesz party’s intellectual milieu. But both sides have gained from the relationship over the years.

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.

Back in power

Since Orban returned to power in 2010, he and Netanyahu have enjoyed a fruitful political partnership.

Orban systematically began to build an illiberal state, which brought him into increasing conflict with the EU – an EU that Netanyahu regarded as becoming less and less pro-Israel. While the 2011 Arab Spring was welcomed by the EU and the US, both Orban and Netanyahu believed the Arab revolutions would only bring chaos. And the Orban government has made more and more gestures towards Israel: it pushed the Palestinian issue to the sidelines, putting aside its hitherto balanced Middle East policy, and in the EU it has tried to block everything it believed was anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian.

So Orban and Netanyahu were already in the same boat when Fidesz launched its anti-Soros campaign in 2015 – a campaign that was invented for them by Israeli-American campaign advisers.

The anti-Soros campaign was not just about words. During the 2018 Hungarian election campaign, Fidesz’s media used discrediting material produced by an Israeli private intelligence firm to try to frame NGOs linked to Soros in several parts of the world. The operation was botched in Hungary after the Israeli private intelligence agency targeted an activist, the head of Migration Aid, who it wasn’t aware was an informant for the Hungarian secret service. Once this was revealed, Fidesz quickly stopped the smear campaign, though the campaign against Soros has continued ever since.

Orban and Netanyahu have been mutually supportive in recent years. Orban helped Netanyahu to make the other countries in the Visegrad Group allies of Israel, particularly Poland, though all of the V4 – including Czechia and Slovakia – could now be considered pro-Israeli.

Netanyahu has been criticised by many in Israel for opening up to the (far) right in Europe, especially in Central and Southeast Europe, which many regard as antisemitic. However, Netanyahu’s policy was a reaction to the refugee crisis of 2015: from then on, Muslim immigrants were the enemy and Netanyahu felt the left and far left in Europe were more anti-Israel than the far right. Within his Likud party, they believe the “new antisemitism” is anti-Israel. And it is also considered “new antisemitism” when some left-wing circles call for a boycott of products from Israeli-occupied territories.

And while Orban was in Europe helping Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister was working to build Fidesz’s links in the US with the right-wing of the Republican Party, which is close to Israel. Netanyahu was instrumental in bringing Donald Trump and Orban together. And for Orban, it was vital that his relations within the US were at least acceptable to the Republicans. Around 2014, relations between the Orban government and the Democratic administration of Barack Obama had deteriorated to the point of being bad. During Trump’s presidency, relations improved somewhat, but after the Democrats won again, US-Hungarian relations plummeted to a new low.

That is why Orban is so keen for and confident of a Trump win in 2024. Orban’s Netanyahu alliance is another matter entirely – it probably won’t be worth much in the future, as the Israeli prime minister is expected to be swept away by the current conflict.

Given this history, it is not surprising that the Orban government didn’t hesitate for a moment to stand by Israel after Hamas’s brutal attack on Israeli civilians on October 7.

Moreover, Fidesz, accused of antisemitism because of the Soros campaign, can now boast that Jews are safe in Hungary and there is zero tolerance for antisemitism. It would be hard to argue with that claim: Orban has practically personally decided that no pro-Palestinian demonstrations can be held in Hungary. And unlike in Germany or France, where attacks against Jews by mainly Islamists have increased recently, there is no such threat in Hungary for the time being.

Source : Balkaninsight