What should Bibi know before landing in Budapest for the V4 summit?

Premier Netanyahu should know that he is arriving in a region where the basic tenets of liberal democracies are being stifled

Irena Kalhousová
11 July 2017

Rest assured, Benjamin Netanyahu will receive a warm welcome in Budapest when he arrives there for the Visegrad/V4 summit (summit of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) on 18-19 July. Netanyahu’s visit is long overdue. It will be the first official visit of an Israeli prime minister in Hungary since the fall of communism and Netanyahu will be accorded a special attention. For Hungary, as for the rest of the Visegrad group, good relations with Israel are one of the few stable features of its foreign policy. For Israel, the support of Central European countries is also of paramount importance. Israel under Netanyahu has been losing support in many European capitals, since the policies of his nationalist-religious coalition are seen as the prime obstacle for the two-state solution. Building on excellent bilateral relations with the Central European countries, this is thus the first attempt to establish a regional cooperation between Israel and the V4.

However, before embracing the leaders of the V4 countries, Israeli Prime Minister should be reminded that he comes to a region where good relations with Israel may serve as a fig leaf for covering very unpleasant policies, and this is especially the case in Hungary and Poland. For an Israeli Prime Minister, particularly the one who in his important political speeches likes to mention an ancient past, the question of history and memory should be of his/her concern. Messrs. Orbán and Kaczyński have become notorious for embracing historical relativization, if not revisionism. They are good readers of George Orwell who understood that “who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past.” The Polish President Andrzej Duda was very blunt when he said that “historical politics should be conducted by the Polish state as an element of the construction of our international position.”

Unlike Germany, other Central Europe countries, including Austria, have been very reluctant to face the responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, in the last two decades, local historians started to disclose dark chapters of the World War II (WWII) which were hidden under the rug during the communist era. In their studies they demonstrated how not just the Germans, but also the local populations actively persecuted the Jews. Even when facing a strong opposition, there were politicians, like former President of Poland Kwasniewski, who were ready to stand behind these studies. These statesmen have realized that to admit one’s guilt makes the nation stronger, not weaker.

However, this approach is not shared by Orbán and Kaczyński. Instead, they stress that it is Germany which must bear sole responsibility for the mass murder of the Central European Jewry, while at the same time accentuating the suffering and victimhood of Central European nations during WWII. To support their claim, Poles would always mention that they were a nation of rescuers of Jews, a claim supported by the fact that there are more than 6700 Polish Righteous among the Nations, the highest number among European nations. The reader must decide if this number justifies the Polish claim, especially when taking into consideration that in 1939, Poles were a nation of 35 million people, among those almost 10 percent were involved in the largest underground resistance army in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. 3 million brave men and women who were ready to risk their lives when fighting both the Nazis and later the Communists, but less than 7 thousand who were brave enough to save their Jewish neighbors.

A draft of a bill which would enable Poland to charge people both at home and abroad who claim that Poland was co-responsible for crimes committed by Nazi Germany; a campaign targeting historians who focus on the Polish participation in the Holocaust, including an attempt by the Polish government to strip a US-Polish historian Jan Tomasz Gross of the Order of Merit; the investigation of the Jedwabne massacre by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, and its conclusion that the perpetrators of a massacre during which more than 300 Jews were burned alive were Poles, challenged by the minister of education Anna Zalewska – these are just a few examples of historical politics in Poland.

Hungarian relativization of history is aptly represented by a monument erected in the heart of Budapest in 2014. It was built on one Sunday night and never officially unveiled, as protests against its distortion of history were expected. Dedicated to the victims of the German invasion, the Nazi Germany is depicted there as a bronze eagle whereas ‘innocent Hungary’ is represented by the Archangel Gabriel. The fact is that Hungary was far from being an innocent victim of Nazism. Anti-Jewish legislations and policies were introduced more than a decade before the Nazis came to power in Germany, and later the Hungarian authorities were willing lackeys of Eichmann in implementing the final solution. However, these facts became apparently irrelevant when the authorities needed to stress the Hungarian victimhood. Another popular topic for the Hungarian nationalist right is the rehabilitation and even glorification of Miklos Horthy. It is true that this Hungarian Regent who ruled from 1920 to 1944 managed to stabilize and protect the country during difficult times after the Trianon Treaty, when Hungary was caught between the Soviet and Nazi dictatorships. At the same time, Horthy assisted Nazi Germany with a disastrous Eastern front campaign, oversaw the adoption of brutal anti-Jewish legislation, forced Hungarian Jews to forced labor, and under his rule, the Hungarian Gendarmerie assisted the Nazis in assembling and sending Jews to Auschwitz. But just recently, Mr. Orbán called Horthy an ‘exceptional statesman’.

Israeli Prime Minister, while walking down the streets of Budapest, should be alarmed by posters whose motifs are reminiscent of classic anti-Semitic propaganda of accusing the Jews of a global conspiracy. In this updated Hungarian version, it is George Soros, a Jewish billionaire and a promoter of liberal society, who pulls the strings in manipulating the head of Socialist party László Botka.  Shortly before Netanyahu’s visit, another anti-Soros campaign has been launched. On large posters, Soros is depicted as an enemy of Hungary.  Next to the photo of his face, the text says “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh,” referencing the claim of the Hungarian government that Soros has caused the refugee crisis. Some of the posters have even been glued to the floors of train cars so that passengers would step on them. At first, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a clear statement condemning the alleged anti-Semitic character of the campaign. Under the pressure of Netanyahu, however, the foreign ministry soon ‘clarified’ its statement, saying that “In no way was the statement meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.” For right-wing nationalists all over the Western world, Soros has become a hated symbol of a rootless cosmopolitan who supports open and liberal society – values that in their eyes threaten the purity of nations. Israeli right-wing despises Soros for providing funding for Israeli NGOs which are at the frontline of criticism of the Israeli occupation. Netanyahu, loyal both to his political instinct and to supporters, thus did not hesitate to ignore the anti-Semitic element of the anti-Soros campaign in Hungary and joined the anti-liberal voices in Hungary by labeling Soros an enemy of Israel. 

Historical relativization is not a political tool popular just in Hungary or Poland. A state-funded Slovak institution Matica Slovenská, whose mission is ‘to develop and strengthen Slovak nationalism’, released a short video which praises the Slovak State, while keeping silent about the fact that this client state of Nazi Germany was the only state in Europe which paid Germany for the deportation of Slovak Jews to concentration camps. After a strong criticism, Matica decided to remove the video.

Premier Netanyahu should know that he is arriving in a region where the basic tenets of liberal democracies are being stifled. Attacks on independence of courts and media, attempts to limit academic freedoms, demonization of the opposition, disregard for minority rights, homophobia, repression of civil society, these are all symptoms of illiberal state praised by Orbán and adopted by Kaczyński, These policies are being emulated by some politicians also in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Unfortunately, looking at the record of the Israeli government under Netanyahu’s leadership, some of his policies are far too similar to those promoted by Orbán and Kaczyński. It is quite obvious that the current Israeli Prime Minister is brother in arms of illiberal leaders from Central Europe rather than a staunch defender of democratic values.

The main task of an Israeli Prime Minister is first and foremost to promote the interest of Israel. Rather than the small and distant Israel, the bigger and more influential players should remind Hungary, Poland and the rest of the Visegrad countries that democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights are the only acceptable rules in a civilized world. Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister should have a long term strategy for dealing with European states which are, on the one hand, pro-Israeli and on the other hand have illiberal inclinations; the states which are supportive of their local Jewish communities but at the same time attract voters by promoting xenophobia and especially islamophobia. Are such allies reliable partners for Israel in a long term? Does Israel want to rely on such allies? What is the red-line for Israel, whose current Prime Minister considers himself to be the Prime Minister of Jews world-wide, for historical relativization of events during WWII and for racism and anti-Semitism?

Of course, many times in its history Israel had allies who did not consider democracy to be a necessary or useful system of governance. As a small country in a turbulent region, Israel cannot be too picky whom to ally with. However, in regard to Central European countries, the situation is rather different compared to Israel’s allies from Africa or Asia. A large part of the Israeli population has its roots in Central Europe, Zionism and founding mothers and fathers of Israel were born in this region, the biggest tragedy in the history of Jews took place there. So no Israeli Prime Minister can ignore the fact that nationalist and xenophobic voices are yet again taking over the public space in Central Europe. And pragmatically speaking, it was only after democracy returned to Central Europe that the relations with Israel were renewed and have flourished ever since. Siding with authoritarian leaders may not serve Israel’s interest. But does Israeli Prime Minister, who in the election day laments via his Facebook post that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls, left-wing organizations are busing them out”, understand that is it dangerous to play with fire of hatred towards minorities and opposition voices?         

The potential for close relations between Israel and Visegrad countries is enormous. Also due to the unprecedented historical links, cultural exchange is flourishing. Central European countries whose economies still rely much on providing cheap labor for foreign companies could and should find an inspiration in Israel and its start-up economy. Already existing cooperation in cyber security, medical and military sectors, and academic research is beneficial to all parties and should be strengthened. V4 countries are more realistic in their assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to many other members of the EU and are not pushing Israel to negotiations with Palestinians at all costs. BDS, a movement with strong anti-Semitic tendencies calling for a boycott of Israel, is neither supported by the left nor by the academia – the two main proponents of BDS in the Western countries. As such, it is rather sad that what really drives Visegrad countries, especially Hungary and Poland, and Israel closer together is not mostly the human, economic, or scientific potential of cooperation. Rather, it is the fact that they need each other for legitimization of their domestic policies. After all, how can any country be seriously accused of malicious revisionism, let alone anti-Semitism, if it has such excellent relations with the Jewish state? And back home, Netanyahu can yet again argue that Israel’s position abroad is strong and nothing, including the continuing occupation of Palestinians, can diminish that. In the short term, this can work. In a long term, I have serious doubts.

Irena Kalhousová PhD Candidate, London School of Economic; Chief Analyst, Foundation Forum2000

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