Orban’s victory strengthens his ability to stand up to the European Union, including Israel

Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban scored a landslide electoral victory last Sunday, shielding Fidesz’s vast majority against a broad spectrum of united opposition parties.

Orbán is the bane of liberal European politicians, a symbol of an authoritarian nationalist trend that goes against the values ​​espoused by Brussels.

Some of the accusations against Orbán are serious: that he undermines Hungarian democracy, that he seeks to reduce Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust and trades in anti-Semitic tropes, and that he lives with Russian President Vladimir Putin. These allegations will continue to be discussed in Europe and elsewhere.

But for Israel and those in its government interested in realpolitik, Orbán’s victory is a diplomatic boon: Hungary under Orbán has proven to be a staunch friend of Israel in European institutions.

In January, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to thank Orban on “Hungary’s steadfast 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.”

Orbán’s clear electoral victory gives the Hungarian leader a firm mandate in his country to stand against various EU positions – including that of Israel.

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

‘Strong new mandate’

Budapest has in recent years been the EU’s strongest supporter of Jerusalem, blocking several efforts to issue statements critical of Israeli policies. In 2020, Hungary was one of the only countries not to speak out publicly against Israel’s plan, which has since been thwarted, to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank.

Because of the nature of the EU’s foreign policy process, even the smallest countries have the ability to thwart European initiatives. The bloc makes decisions based on consensus, meaning that Israel’s condemnations must be approved by all 27 member states — including the traditionally pro-Israel Visegrad Group, an alliance of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

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Hungary’s ambassador to Israel, Leventi Pinko, hinted at Hungary’s increased confidence in its talks with Brussels.

Left to right: 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 turnouts ever recorded in an election since the fall of communism, Hungarians have sent a very clear and unmistakable message by giving the current government a strong new mandate,” Banky told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

This is a democratic legitimacy that is difficult for our partners to overlook in the discussions between the European Commission and Hungary. Especially since many aspects of these discussions involve issues that remain within the exclusive purview of member states – and we would like them to remain that way.”

“The elections in no way changed Hungary’s steadfast support for Israel in international organizations and in recognition of its inalienable right to self-defense,” Benke said.

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

Ukraine problem

Hungary has come under fire on the continent for its opposition to a sweeping European ban on Russian natural gas and oil. Hungary relies heavily on Russian energy to heat its homes and power its manufacturers, and Hungary is staunchly opposed to shutting down Russian pipelines without any realistic alternative. Moreover, Budapest is currently shipping natural gas to Ukraine and, in the event of a ban on Russian imports, would likely cut off supplies to Ukraine before allowing its citizens to freeze.

The tanker Sun Arrows carries its cargo of liquefied natural gas from the Sakhalin 2 project at the port of Prigorodnoye, Russia, October 29, 2021 (AP Photo, File)

But many other EU countries, while pushing renewables rather than investing in fossil fuels, are also not in a position to cut off Russian energy.

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Germany, which is shutting down its nuclear power plants, also needs Russia to fuel its massive economy, and is publicly opposed to a blanket ban. Austria, Bulgaria and other countries in central Europe have voiced opposition to the ban.

At the same time, Orban was ready to support all rounds of EU sanctions against Russia up to this point, citing the need for unity in Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin 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 although Orban will not supply Kyiv with lethal weapons or allow it to pass through Hungary directly to Ukraine, he does allow lethal weapons to cross 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 move into the country as the alliance seeks to bolster its deterrence against Moscow.

This did not prevent the Hungarian leader from engaging in a bitter war of words with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ahead of the election, the Ukrainian leader described Budapest as “the Russian branch in Europe” and said Brussels should “stop listening to Budapest’s excuses”.

During his victory speech, he singled out Urban Zelensky as one of the forces he beat in the election, citing “the left at home, the international left everywhere, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Soros empire with all its money, the major international media and, ultimately, even the Ukrainian president.”

A Ukrainian refugee family and other Ukrainians fleeing their country arrive at the Ukrainian-Hungarian border crossing in Tizabić, February 27, 2022 (Attila Kisbenedek / AFP)

Concerns about the far right

Despite his constant attacks on liberal Jewish billionaire George Soros – rhetoric that Jewish groups in Hungary have condemned as anti-Semitic – Orbán has been vocal about his distaste for anti-Semitism. During a press conference Wednesday, Orban stressed that a zero-tolerance policy for anti-Semitism would remain in place.

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The opposition coalition that welcomed the far-right Jobbik party into its ranks was also defeated.

In a political bloc similar to the one that ousted Benjamin Netanyahu last year, the United for Hungary coalition came together with the sole aim of removing Orbán from office. It included the Greens and the Hungarian Socialist Party on the left, and Jobbik, which critics say is a neo-Nazi party, on the right wing.

Followers of the radical nationalist Jobbik Party attend a 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 communists, and leftists did not want to support fascists.

V4 or V3 + 1?

Despite Orban’s apparent victory, there are some worrying signs for Israel. The war in Ukraine exposed the fault lines between Hungary and Slovakia in Visegrad on the one hand and the Czechs and fiercely anti-Russian Poles on the other.

“In the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Poland appears to be taking a turn, returning to embrace the European Union,” said Maya Sion Tzedkiyahu, director of the Israel-Europe Relations Program at Mitvim. “This is isolating Hungary, and the EU has started using Article 7 against it.”

Members of Congress cheer on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before he speaks in a virtual address to Congress in the Capitol Hall at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 16, 2022. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times via AP, rally, file)

In 2018, the European Parliament initiated an Article 7 procedure against Budapest for allegedly undermining the bloc’s democratic values ​​and the rule of law. This could result in the country losing voting rights. It also took the same steps against Poland, but did not move to advanced stages of actions against either country.

“Without Poland’s support to stop this move, Orban will find himself in a more direct confrontation with the European Union,” Sion Tzedkiahu continued. “He’s already in a budget struggle with them.”

Two days after Orban won the election, the European Commission said 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 Pyatov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pol Photo via The Associated Press)

However, despite the tensions in the pro-Israel bloc, it is unlikely that they will disappear or stop supporting Jerusalem. The four countries, like the others that were in the Soviet bloc, represent more conservative, nationalist and often religious peoples than their peers in Western Europe.

Hungary’s policies may anger Ukraine and many EU countries, but Orbán has shown that Hungarians expect their leaders to put their interests first, especially when it comes to Russia. While many sympathize with the Ukrainians, they know it’s not their fight, and they see no reason to provoke Russia with actions that wouldn’t end the war anyway.

And this, in the end, is not very different from what Israelis expect of Bennett when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.

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