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'Patriotic Nations': Netanyahu and the Visegrad Four

Le Premier ministre israélien Benjamin Netanyahu (G), et son homologue hongrois Viktor Orban (D), ont donné une conférence de presse commune le 18 juillet 2017 au Parlement hongrois à Budapest
KAROLY ARVAI (HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Hungary on Tuesday for the first official visit of a sitting Israeli Prime Minister to Budapest, one day before he is set to meet the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary -- collectively known as the Visegrad Four.

But the run up to Netanyahu’s visit has been shrouded in controversy.

It’s all about risk and reward on Netanyahu’s current trip to Europe. At their first official meeting on Tuesday Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban held a press conference during which the latter acknowledged what he called the "sin" of not protecting Hungarian Jews during World War II.

Orban called for a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitism. The Hungarian Prime Minister spoke of the connection between Israel and Hungary and called Israel a “patriotic nation” like his own.

PMO

Wednesday will be another important day for Netanyahu as he meets with the leaders of the four Visegrad countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary.

Once, after the Soviet-era Iron Curtain fell, their club aimed to help its members in their bids for entry into the European Union.

Today it serves primarily as a base to take on their grievances with the EU.

- Controversial governments -

All four countries are now EU members, but they see things differently than the powers-that-be in Brussels.

In May, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging an inquiry into the state of democracy and the “serious deterioration” of fundamental Human Rights in Hungary.

Critics say governments like Hungary’s and Poland’s undermine a free press and independent courts.

But the Hungarian government disagrees. Hungary took a harsh anti-refugee stance when the European migration crisis broke out in 2015, refusing to accept the so-called migrant quotas imposed by the EU.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK (AFP/File)

But that is their choice to make, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Szijjarto, said in an interview with i24NEWS in May.

“Migration is the most serious challenge the European Union has ever had to face, since the foundation of the integration,” he said.

“We look at this issue as a security issue. We don’t want anyone to force us to let any people into our territory, whom we don’t want to let in. We’re not going to change our migration policy,” he continued.

In that same interview, the Foreign Minister said Turkey’s jailing of journalists did not bother them, and that they don’t “comment on domestic issues of other countries”.

- Risks, Rewards for Israel and The Four -

For Netanyahu, the Visegrad summit is a chance to find friends for Israel.

Speaking alongside Orban after their meeting on Tuesday, Netanyahu made a point of thanking the Hungarian leader “for standing up for Israel in international forums.”

Netanyahu is constantly on the lookout for diplomatic support in the international game, and these four countries -- a significant bloc within the EU -- could help him on his way.

And as for the leaders of the Visegrad for, they stand to gain legitimacy.

These governments, which are in the European doghouse, have the opportunity to cozy up to the leader of a democracy that has close ties to Washington. It’s a good photo op.

“There is a lot for us to learn from Israel, because Israel teaches the world and us that if you don't fight for something, you will lose it. Because nowadays you have to fight for everything in the modern world,” Orban said at a joint press conference with Netanyahu on Tuesday.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK (AFP)

“I very much believe that more and more Hungarian compatriots will understand this iron clad law of the modern era,” he added.

But, for Netanyahu, there are risks. Israel presents itself as open and liberal and sharing a stage with these leaders could tarnish that image.

The run up to the visit was shrouded in controversy. Leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community criticized Orban for an anti-immigration campaign targeting the Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros for being anti-Semitic.

Israel at first condemned the anti-Soros campaign. But then Netanyahu clarified that the pro-immigrant Soros, who has taken aim at the Hungarian government, was a legitimate target.

It’s a diplomatic dance that shows just how tricky Netanyahu’s Hungarian tour is.

Reporting by Owen Alterman, senior International Affairs correspondent, and Bianca Zanini, International Affairs correspondent.

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