Staying on a four-day official visit in Hungary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rear left, and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban, rear right, look on as Israeli Ambassador Yosef Amrani, left, and Hungarian Minister of National Econom
Staying on a four-day official visit in Hungary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rear left, and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban, rear right, look on as Israeli Ambassador Yosef Amrani, left, and Hungarian Minister of National Econom

During a joint appearance Tuesday in Budapest, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reassured Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he stands with the Jewish state against anti-Semitism.

The meeting took place amid concerns that Orban's right-wing government was stoking anti-Semitism.

While standing next to Netanyahu on Tuesday, Orban sought to distance himself from comments he made last month in praise of Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian wartime leader and Hitler ally. Orban previously called Horthy — who oversaw the deportation of more than half a million Hungarian Jews to death camps during World War Two — an “exceptional statesman” for rebuilding the country after the war.

“It is the duty of every Hungarian government to defend its citizens whatever their heritage. During World War Two, Hungary did not honor this moral and political obligation,” Orban said during a joint news conference with Netanyahu. “That is a crime, because we chose collaboration with the Nazis over the defense of the Jewish community. That can never happen again. The Hungarian government will defend all of its citizens in the future.”

'Spiritual brothers'

United by a shared disdain for the left-leaning global order and isolated from Western European politicians for their support for U.S. President Donald Trump, the pair of leaders have been called "spiritual brothers" by Hungarian media. Netanyahu quickly accepted Orban's apology.

“[Orban] reassured me in unequivocal terms [about anti-Semitism concerns]. I appreciate that. These are important words,” Netanyahu said.

“There is a new anti-Semitism expressed in anti-Zionism that is delegitimizing the one and only Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. “In many ways, Hungary is at the forefront of the states that are opposed to this anti-Jewish policy, and I welcome it and express the appreciation of my government.”

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban in the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017.

Visegrad Group

Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to visit Hungary since the end of the Cold War. On Wednesday, he will be joined by leaders from the Visegrad Group — Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, as well as Hungary. The loose group of Eastern European countries are led by right wing nationalist governments and regularly draw diplomatic fire from the rest of the EU for their refusal to accept refugees.

"Hungary does not want a mixed population," Orban said Tuesday, defending his country's refusal to accept the EU's suggested number of refugees from the Syrian crisis. “[Hungary] does not want to change its current ethnic makeup. It will not defer to an external pressure."

Orban lumped Netanyahu in with the other ethnic nationalist leaders in the Visegrad group, calling him a “great patriot,” and noting that “success belongs to those who are patriots, who don't push national identity and interests aside.”

Advertisement in a metro station in Budapest photo
Advertisement in a metro station in Budapest photographed July 12, 2017. The Hungarian government says it will end its disputed ad campaign against Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. The billboards, posters and TV ads were criticized by Hungaria

Countering Soros

Beyond tone, the two leaders also are bound by their shared disdain for George Soros, the Jewish-American financier and philanthropist whom they view as a key component of the liberal global order. In April, the Hungarian government passed legislation that threatens to shutter the Soros-backed Central European University in Budapest. Soros founded the university after the Cold War to advance humanism and liberal democracy in the formerly communist state.

More recently, Orban's government has mounted posters criticizing the Hungarian-born Jewish emigre for his support for refugee resettlement.

The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Federations [Mazsihisz] urged Orban to remove the posters, warning that “while not openly anti-Semitic, [the campaign] clearly has the potential to ignite uncontrolled emotions.” Many of the posters were quickly sprayed with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Comment from the rights group

Although Israel's ambassador to Hungary initially criticized the posters for “evok[ing] sad memories,” the Israeli foreign ministry quickly moved to clarify his comments.

“In no way was the statement [by the ambassador] meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel's democratically elected governments,” said the Israeli foreign ministry.

Soros funds several organizations that operate in Israel, including Human Rights Watch, which is regularly critical of the Netanyahu government.

Orban and Netanyahu drew broad criticism from rights groups.

“We urge them to refrain from populist attacks on fundamental rights and return to respecting and protecting these, respect the human rights of all regardless of their political views, including those that voice uncomfortable truth on breaches of law and human rights violations,” said Júlia Iván, the director of Amnesty International Hungary.