The Orban-Netanyahu mutual support nexus

Azriel Bermant & Anita Tusor

EU Observer  /  December 20, 2022

Following Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel’s general election, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban tweeted “What a great victory for Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel! Hard times require strong leaders. Welcome back!”

According to the NGO Atlatszo which seeks to promote transparency and accountability in Hungary, advisers associated with Fidesz visited Israel over the summer to help the Netanyahu election campaign.

Netanyahu shamelessly recycled election propaganda that had been used by the Fidesz campaign in 2014.

The parallels between the two leaders can be seen in the campaign to denigrate and delegitimize political opposition and ethnic minorities, in the attempts to muzzle the independent judiciary, in the exploitation of religion to promote nationalism and most disturbingly, perhaps, in the efforts to co-opt extreme rightwing parties as a means to entrench power.

The fact that Hungary has not been made to pay a significant price for its illiberal policies would only have encouraged Netanyahu and his Likud party to replicate the model that has served Orban well.

This matters because the EU’s inability to rein in Hungary’s abuses of power sends a signal to other illiberal leaders that they can also get away with attacks on democracy.

The fact that Orban was able to hold up an €18bn aid package to Ukraine in return for obtaining billions of euros in EU cash demonstrates that Hungary has the leverage to counter European pressures. France, Germany and Italy are among the countries that have called for the EU to go easy on Orban.

Orban’s defiance of his critics emboldens would-be autocrats everywhere. In 2010, the Hungarian leader extended the terms of judges who showed him loyalty, while others were forcibly retired and replaced by justices supportive of his government.

Orban has also extended his control to the police authorities. Leading figures in Netanyahu’s Likud party have not hidden their desire to neuter the judiciary and the media.

They plan to use Israel’s Knesset to override the Supreme Court and thereby prevent it from striking down laws that are unconstitutional and illegal. As in Orban’s Hungary, the Likud and its allies seek to change how judges are selected, and bring in purely political appointments.

It is Orban’s hostility to the EU consensus which has made him very useful as a Netanyahu ally, with the incoming Israeli government expected to take a very hard line over policy towards the Palestinians.

In the recent past, the previous Netanyahu government took advantage of divisions within Europe to prevent an EU consensus on issues such as settlement expansion.

Yet the reforms sought by Netanyahu and his allies could have more damaging consequences than those that are playing out in Hungary.

If the new government gets its way and the courts are forced to toe a political line, there will be fewer restraints on deeply-controversial policies such as legalizing West Bank settlements that were not recognized even by previous Israeli governments, evictions of Palestinians from their homes and suppression of Palestinian civil society.

The Likud’s coalition partners are pushing for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s collaboration with Israel’s ultra-nationalist right also strongly resembles the approach taken by Orban.

By adopting characteristics of radical nationalist subculture over the years, the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary has incrementally aligned itself with Our Homeland.

This is a party that is openly racist, irredentist, anti-immigrant, homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma, advocating a “white, pure Hungary” that must remain a “white island” in Europe. Our Homeland and its public campaigns serve as a testing ground for Fidesz which is only too happy to exploit its extremist agenda and pick up its ideas.

Yet Netanyahu has gone further still, forming an alliance with the extremist Jewish Power party led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man who has openly supported terrorist attacks against Palestinians. Ben Gvir is a disciple of Meir Kahane, a Jewish fascist who was the leader of the Kach party which was banned in the late 1980s because of its racist policies. Kahane was ostracized across the political spectrum.

Ben Gvir has been appointed as Israel’s minister of public security, putting him in charge of the police and giving him enforcement authority in the West Bank.

Ben Gvir’s presence in the government has emboldened extreme ultra-nationalist settlers who have stepped up their attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Netanyahu has also appointed the openly homophobic Avi Maoz, to an influential post in Israel’s Ministry of Education, echoing Orban’s crusade against gay people in Hungary.

Orban welcomes Netanyahu’s election victory because he believes that Israel has clout on the global stage.

Yet paradoxically, Netanyahu’s electoral triumph serves as an endorsement of Orban’s illiberal orientation, at the very time when it has suffered a setback elsewhere over recent weeks, with the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the poor performance of Trump-backed Republicans in the US mid-term elections.

However, those who have long admired and supported Israel as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East should have good reason to rue the fact that Israel has succumbed to the malign influence of Orbanism.

Azriel Bermant is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations, Prague, a former research fellow in the arms control and regional security programme at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University and the author of Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Anita Tusor is a research assistant at the Institute of International Relations Prague