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Why Netanyahu is cozying up to Europe's renegades

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bumps heads with Western European leaders over their support for their I...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 9:54 AM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 9:54 AM

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bumps heads with Western European leaders over their support for their Iran nuclear deal and their ubiquitous criticism of Israeli settlements, he has found a different set of European allies.

Right-wing governments such as Hungary and Poland, openly critical of European Union policies despite being members, have grown closer to Israel even as some face accusations of anti-Semitism. And Netanyahu is pushing that trend forward.

In Israel on a three-day visit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the latest of these countries' leaders to visit the country. Orban was greeted warmly by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, and is scheduled to visit the Western Wall on Friday morning before returning home.

Now in his fourth term, the Hungarian leader has faced accusations of anti-Semitism, primarily for his attacks on Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor George Soros. Orban has also established a platform that is forcefully anti-immigrant. The Hungarian leader has cracked down on nongovernmental organizations, opposition parties and an independent media, cementing his own party's power with a sweeping victory in April's elections.

Opposition Knesset member Yair Lapid slammed Orban's visit as a "disgrace," writing on Twitter that Netanyahu is honoring a man who"praised the anti-Semitic leader who collaborated with the Nazis in the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry." Last year, Orban paid tribute to Miklos Horthy, Hungary's leader during World War 2 who enacted anti-Jewish laws and was an ally of Nazi Germany.

None of that seems to matter for Netanyahu, who has cozied up to Europe's renegade leaders, finding common ground in shared interests. Netanyahu has brought Israel closer to the conservative, populist leaders pushing anti-immigrant messages in Europe, mirroring Netanyahu's ties to the administration of President Donald Trump.

Hungary is perhaps the clearest example of the emerging partnerships. Netanyahu and Orban have both taken hardline stances on immigration. Netanyahu has worked to remove thousands of African migrants from Israel, while Orban has likened immigration to a "flu epidemic." Hungary has even built a fence along its southern border with Serbia and Croatia to stop migration, comparable to Israel's fence along the Egypt border, which has stopped migration from across Sinai.

And both leaders have demonized Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist who donates to many liberal causes and organizations through his Open Society Foundations. Orban's campaign against Soros included a campaign slogan of "Let's not allow Soros to have the last laugh!" while the country's foreign minister labeled Soros a "national security risk."

Orban is not the only right-wing European politician embraced by Netanyahu in recent months. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz made his first official visit to Israel in June. His coalition includes the far-right Freedom Party, which was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s. Israel has boycotted the party, but not Kurz's government. Netanyahu called Kurz "a true friend of Israel" during his visit, thanking him for opposing anti-Semitism in Austria.

Most recently, Netanyahu showed how far he was willing to go to for better ties with Poland. After Poland passed a highly controversial Holocaust law making it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes, Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart issued a joint statement downplaying the role of Poles in the deaths of Jews that attempted to resolve the issue; Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum slammed the statement as containing "grave errors and deceptions."

As part of the warming relations, Netanyahu has sought diplomatic success for Israel. Beyond improving economic and trade relations, the ultimate victory would be recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the relocation of embassies there, and Israel has encouraged countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic to make it happen.

The Central European countries have, so far, rebuffed the greater embassy move, though the Czechs -- led by right-wing president Milos Zeman -- announced they will open an honorary consulate in Jerusalem.

Still, Israel has claimed smaller diplomatic victories. Hungary, Poland, Croatia and the Czech Republic all abstained from a December United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Though the resolution still passed with an overwhelming majority, the European abstentions represented a crack in the European Union's unanimity.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to drive a wedge between the US and the EU, Netanyahu wants to divide the EU from itself. Not politically or economically, but diplomatically. Netanyahu's apparent objective is to break the bloc's consensus on Israel.

The Israeli leader has long been critical of the EU's policies toward Israel, and the EU has been equally critical of the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, among other things.

In Orban, Netanyahu has found another critic of the EU. Orban has also slammed the bloc, focusing much of his criticism on its migration policy.

As the EU struggles to cope with the migrant issue, the uncertainty over Brexit and how to deal with Trump, leaders like Netanyahu see the chance to break the EU's favored approach of unity on foreign policy. In the EU's weakness, Israel's Prime Minister smells opportunity.

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