Much ado is being made about the visit to Israel of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
How can we be giving legitimacy, say Israeli critics, to a leader some accuse of fanning the flames of antisemitism, possessing authoritarian tendencies and being one of the most strident opponents of immigration in the European Union?
The issue has come up many times in the past when foreign leaders with questionable records arrive in Israel for talks with government officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There has even been criticism of the prime minister for hosting US President Donald Trump, the leader of Israel’s closest ally in the world.
Certainly, the policies of Orban and other strongmen contain plenty of off-putting aspects that require some distancing and diplomatic finesse from Israeli officials. However, that doesn’t mean that they should be ostracized, ignored or insulted when reaching out to other countries.
Unlike rogue states like Iran or North Korea which deserve the disdain of freedom-loving people, most countries are flawed democracies – like Israel. Their leaders engage other countries according to their own interests in locating shared strategies and values. You don’t have to agree with them on all, or even on most points, in order to establish a working relationship between two countries.
Netanyahu’s job – leading an embattled country with enemies and critics around every corner – is to look out for Israel’s interests. And that includes meeting and hosting world leaders who have an interest in seeing a strong Israel.
Why shouldn’t he meet with Orban? Israel’s Ambassador to Hungary Yossi Amrani said in an interview this week that the two countries are “allies, partners and friends.” He dismissed claims of widespread antisemitism in Hungary, saying that there has been a “rebirth of Jewish life in the country, with an investment in… the renovation of synagogues, in Jewish culture… This is not antisemitism by my definition of antisemitism.”
As The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon pointed out, among EU countries, Hungary has consistently abstained rather than vote against Israel at the UN, including such controversial votes as the one condemning the US for moving its embassy to Jerusalem. It also was instrumental in thwarting an EU resolution on the same subject.
Does that mean that Israel should turn a blind eye to Orban’s or any other leader’s alliance with elements that are antisemitic or fascist in tone? Of course not. But to suggest that Israel avoid or reject Hungary and its leader, or the United States and its leader – when they meet with the leaders of every other country in the free world – is just an example of hypocrisy and a double standard toward Israel.
European leaders regularly meet with each other, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel did earlier this month with Orban. They had a reportedly tense exchange over the immigration policy for refugees in Europe, and Merkel accused the Hungarian leader of failing to respect “humanity” with his immigration policy. But the fact is that they did meet, and they treated each other with the respect that the leaders of countries expect from each other.
Israel has no choice but to reach out and develop as many friendships and relationships as it can among the family of nations. Netanyahu’s multitude of visits to Moscow to see Russian President Vladimir Putin and his unprecedented closeness with Trump don’t derive from an across-the-board acceptance of everything they stand for. They are conducted to advance Israel’s interests – whether it’s insuring a free hand at keeping Iran at bay in Syria or insuring that those leaders understand and support Israel’s policies on Gaza or Jerusalem in regard to the Palestinians.
Israel doesn’t need to like Russia’s goings on in Crimea, Trump’s chaotic approach to just about everything or Orban’s approach to immigration which has raised an antisemitism flag. It needs to watch out for itself and continue to engage with countries and leaders who can help in implementing that goal. Netanyahu’s challenge is to balance the diplomacy required with the ability to prevent Israel from being seen as aligning itself too closely with said leaders. Because one day, they will be gone – and Israel will still need those nation relations.