Orban’s victory strengthens his ability to challenge the EU, including on Israel

Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a landslide election victory last Sunday, shielding his Fidesz party supermajority from a wide range of united opposition parties.

Orban is the scourge of liberal European politicians, symbol of a nationalist and authoritarian tendency in contradiction with the values ​​defended by Brussels.

Some of the charges against Orban are serious: that he is eroding Hungarian democracy, that he seeks to minimize Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and trades in anti-Semitic tropes, that he is sleeping with the Russian Vladimir Putin. These allegations will continue to be debated in Europe and elsewhere.

But for Israel, and those in its government concerned with realpolitik, Orban’s victory is a diplomatic blessing: Hungary under Orban has proven to be a solid friend of Israel in European institutions.

In January, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett thanked Orban for “Hungary’s unwavering support for Israel in international institutions.” On Thursday, President Isaac Herzog sent a letter to the Hungarian Prime Minister congratulating him on his victory, calling him “a friend and ally”.

Orban’s clear electoral victory gives the Hungarian leader a strong mandate at home to oppose various EU positions, including on Israel.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets cheering supporters during an all-night rally in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

“A new strong mandate”

Budapest has in recent years been the strongest supporter of Jerusalem in the European Union, blocking several efforts to issue statements critical of Israeli policies. In 2020, Hungary was one of the only countries not to have come out publicly against Israel’s plan, since scuttled, to unilaterally annex entire swaths of the West Bank.

Due to the nature of the EU foreign policy process, even the smallest countries have the power to thwart European initiatives. The bloc makes decisions based on consensus, which means condemnations of Israel must be approved by all 27 member states – including the traditionally pro-Israel Visegrad Group, an alliance of Hungary, Poland, from Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Hungary’s Ambassador to Israel, Levente Benkő, hinted at Hungary’s increased confidence in his talks with Brussels.

From left: Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Jerusalem, March 11, 2021 (Haim Tzah/GPO)

“With one of the highest voter turnouts in elections since the fall of communism, Hungarians have sent a very clear and unequivocal message by giving a strong new mandate to the current government,” Benkő told The Times of Israel Thursday.

“This is a democratic legitimacy that can hardly be ignored by our partners in the ongoing debates between the European Commission and Hungary. Especially since many aspects of these debates relate to issues that are still largely within the exclusive competence of the Member States – and we want it to stay that way.

“The elections have in no way altered Hungary’s unwavering support for Israel in international organizations and in the recognition of its inalienable right to self-defense,” Benkő continued.

Moreover, Orban is less isolated in Europe than many think.

The Ukrainian problem

Hungary has been criticized on the continent for its opposition to a sweeping European embargo on Russian natural gas and oil. Heavily dependent on Russian energy to heat its homes and power its manufacturers, Hungary strongly opposes shutting down Russian pipelines without a realistic alternative in place. Additionally, Budapest currently ships natural gas to Ukraine and, in the event of a Russian import embargo, is likely to cut off its supply to Ukraine before allowing its own citizens to freeze.

The oil tanker Sun Arrows loads its cargo of liquefied natural gas from the Sakhalin-2 project in the port of Prigorodnoye, Russia, October 29, 2021. (AP Photo, File)

But many other EU countries, while pushing renewables at the expense of fossil fuel investment, are also unable to cut Russian power.

Germany, which is shutting down its nuclear power plants, also needs Russia to fuel its massive economy and publicly opposes a full-scale embargo. Austria, Bulgaria and other central European countries have also expressed their opposition to the embargo.

At the same time, Orban has been willing to back all rounds of EU sanctions against Russia so far, citing the need for unity in Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a joint press conference after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia September 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool )

And while Orban will not supply lethal weapons to Kyiv or let them pass through Hungary directly to Ukraine, he does allow lethal weapons to flow through the country into Poland and then into Ukraine. Hungary has also accepted more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other European country.

More importantly, Orban is allowing thousands of NATO troops to be moved into the country as the alliance seeks to bolster its deterrence against Moscow.

That hasn’t stopped the Hungarian leader from engaging in a bitter public war of words with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ahead of the election, the Ukrainian leader called Budapest a “Russian branch in Europe” and said Brussels should “stop listening to Budapest’s excuses”.

During his victory speech, Orban singled out Zelensky as one of the forces he defeated in the election, referring to “the left at home, the international left all around, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Soros empire with all his money, the big international media, and in the end, even the Ukrainian president.

A family of Ukrainian refugees and other Ukrainians fleeing their country arrive at the Ukrainian-Hungarian border crossing in Tiszabecs on February 27, 2022. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP)

Concerns about the far right

Despite his constant attacks on liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros — rhetoric condemned by Jewish groups in Hungary as anti-Semitic — Orban has expressed his distaste for anti-Semitism. At a press conference on Wednesday, Orban stressed that his zero-tolerance policy for anti-Semitism would remain in place.

He also defeated an opposition alliance that welcomed the far-right Jobbik party into its ranks.

In a political bloc similar to the one that toppled Benjamin Netanyahu last year, the United for Hungary alliance came together with the sole aim of ousting Orban. It included the Green Party and the Hungarian Socialist Party on the left, and Jobbik, which critics say is a neo-Nazi party, on its right flank.

Supporters of the radical nationalist Jobbik party attend the commemoration of the 1848 uprising against Habsburg rule in Budapest, Hungary, March 15, 2015. (AP Photo/MTI, Tamas Kovacs)

The plan failed spectacularly. Many far-right voters refused to vote for the communists, and left-wing voters did not want to support the fascists.

V4 or V3+1?

Despite Orban’s clear victory, there are worrying signs for Israel. The war in Ukraine revealed fault lines between Hungary and Visegrad Slovakia on one side, and the staunchly anti-Russian Czechs and Poles on the other.

“Following the Russian-Ukrainian war, it seems that Poland is turning around and reconnecting with the EU,” said Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, director of the Israel-Europe relations program at Mitvim. “This isolates Hungary, and the EU has started to use Article 7 against it.”

Members of Congress give a standing ovation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before he virtually addresses Congress in the Congressional Auditorium of the US Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, DC on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (Sarahbeth Maney/ The New York Times via AP, pool, file)

In 2018, the European Parliament launched Article 7 proceedings against Budapest for allegedly undermining the bloc’s democratic values ​​and rule of law. This could lead to the loss of the country’s right to vote. It also took the same action against Poland, but did not move to advanced stages of the proceedings against either country.

“Without Poland’s support to stop this decision, Orban will find himself in an even more direct confrontation with the EU,” Sion-Tzidkiyahu continued. “He’s already in a budget dispute with them.”

Two days after Orban’s victory at the polls, the European Commission announced that it would cut funding to Hungary for violating rule of law standards.

FILE: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2021 (Evgeny Biyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

And yet, despite the tensions in the pro-Israel bloc, it is unlikely to disappear or stop supporting Jerusalem. The four countries, like others that were part of the Soviet bloc, represent much more conservative, nationalistic and often religious populations than their Western European peers.

Hungary’s policies could anger Ukraine and many EU countries, but Orban showed that Hungarians expect their leaders to put their interests first, especially when it comes to of Russia. While many have sympathy for the Ukrainians, they know it is not their fight and see no reason to provoke Russia with measures that will not end the war anyway.

Which, ultimately, isn’t too different from what the Israelis expect from Bennett when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.

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