In recent months, we have witnessed a strange and disturbing phenomenon: Israel’s top officials, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, going out of their way to embrace Hungary’s authoritarian strongman, Viktor Orban, a man whose party has used clear anti-Semitic messages to solidify power.
This week, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer hosted an event for the Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto and took the opportunity to praise Orban as a true friend of Israel and the Jewish people who has “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”
In the recent election campaign in Hunagry, a central part of Orban’s party’s strategy was a vicious $50 million campaign against Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor George Soros which used clear anti-Semitic tropes. Soros’ Open Society Foundations provides less than $4 million per year to Hungarian organizations which stand up for civil rights and accountability – which are “no nos” in Orban’s Hungary. Of course, Netanyahu also hates Soros whose foundations fund civil society and human right organizations active in Israel and the occupied territories.
Haaretz reported: “Orbán’s campaign against Soros is omnipresent in Hungary. Hungarian media have even reported that schoolchildren believe he’s ‘the devil’ and use his name as an epithet on the playground.”
During the campaign, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, released an unusually harsh statement calling on Orban and his party to remove posters published across the country against Soros after leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community said the ads were fueling anti-Semitism.
Days later, Netanyahu forced Amrani to withdraw his statement.
Orban was clearly encouraged and at a speech in March, commemorating the 170th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1848, used familiar anti-Semitic tropes to smear his opponents.
“They are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs,” he said.
Why is Netanyahu so keen to make Orban his close friend? Some may argue that Israel needs all the friends it can have and can’t afford to be fussy. This same argument was used to justify Israel’s close ties with apartheid South Africa that lasted for decades and left a sour taste when the black majority finally achieved equal rights and took power.
But there may be more to it than that. Netanyahu may see in Orban an ideological soulmate. Many of the tactics Orban has adopted to consolidate power and erode democracy are being copied by Netanyahu in Israel – and by President Donald Trump in the United States. In fact, the three constitute an ideological triumvirate.
In consolidating power in Hungary, Orban has recognized the huge power of media. Last year, one of his closest advisers, Arpad Habony, met with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. The purpose of the visit was to discuss starting an outlet in Eastern Europe like Breitbart News, which itself often employs anti-Semitic dog whistles and images.
Inside Hungary, Orban’s allies control much of the media which they use to outlets to push his anti-immigrant, nativist message. During the recent Hungarian election campaign, voters were overwhelmed with dramatic and incorrect articles about the threat of a coming immigrant horde — even though immigration has slowed to a trickle.
In Israel, Netanyahu has been trying for years with some success to rein in the Israeli media. Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson finances a loss-making media empire devoted to the cult of Netanyahu. And in the United States, we have Trump’s unremitting campaign against so-called “fake news” spurred by his own tame outlet, Fox News, and others
Orban has also moved to exert control over the Hungarian judiciary, just as Netanyahu is trying to do in Israel. He has rewarded political cronies with rich contracts and is under fire for corruption – just as Netanyahu is in Israel.
Crony capitalism has become rampant in Hungary. Between 2010 and 2016 alone, five of Orban’s closest friends won roughly 5 percent of government and European Union contracts, a total of $2.5 billion, according to an analysis by the Corruption Research Center Budapest.
The more one looks at the similarities, the more chilling they become.
Truly, Israel does need friends – but does it need friends like these?