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Orban and Netanyahu — Brothers in attitude

Norbert Mappes-Niediek
July 22, 2018

Viktor Orban visited Benjamin Netanyahu this week in a meeting that alarmed many observers: Two "illiberals" telling the world they’re doing our own thing. It's both a phenomenon and problem, says Norbert Mappes-Niediek.

Image: L. Spuma

Hungary, of all countries. Israel, of all countries. Anyone who thought they understood the coordinates of world politics is shaking their heads in astonishment over the friendly welcome the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has extended to his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban. Certainly many Israelis are astonished. Is this not the same Orban who, for many years, has been rehabilitating Hungary's deeply anti-Semitic regime of before and during World War Two? Hasn't he recently been engaged in a furious campaign against George Soros, the American Jewish billionaire of Hungarian descent, deploying pretty much every anti-Semitic cliche in the process? What on earth does a person like him want with Israel?

Yet the coordinates of world politics are undergoing a fundamental change; and while new rifts are emerging, so are new alliances. They may view history very differently, but what separates the prime ministers of Hungary and Israel is outweighed by their common interests. They are allied by their opposition to the world as we know it: the world that emerged from the fall of communism, an international order based on common ideas and resolutions and supported by intergovernmental organizations. Enough with the conferences and resolutions! This is a time for deals between two men.

Strongmen are characterized by the fact that they are not constrained by ideas, and see no need to bother about third parties. Contempt for the multilateral world order has a long history in Israel. It also has a hard, rational core: If the state had submitted to United Nations resolutions, it would never have existed. Instead of enlisting support within the so-called community of states, generations of Israeli politicians have placed their trust in their own military strength in regional matters, and, in the wider world, have allied themselves with the strongest power — the United States.

Read more: Israel's new nation-state law and the politics of superiority

Viktor Orban and Benjamin Netanyahu
Two strongmen, one outlookImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/M.I. Sellem

All for one, one for all?

Israel'€s contempt for multilateral solutions means it is currently admired by strongmen the world over. Like Netanyahu, the Trumps, the Putins, the Erdogans and Kacyznskis of the world see every attempt by the international community to develop common objectives as a curtailment of their freedom of action. The reasons for this are many and various. Some refuse to tolerate criticism of their dealings with the free media and the judiciary, or reject the suggestion that they should take in refugees. Others want to ignore the constraints of international trade agreements and force every importing country to accept their terms; or they refuse to comply with human rights laws or international justice systems. None actually want to improve the often problematic organs of the world community; what they want is to do away with them entirely, or at least to turn their backs on them. Israel, say the Brexiteers of this world, is showing us the way. We'€re better off on our own! Netanyahu and Orban are sending out a political signal.

In the eyes of these new, self-focused nations, the European Union represents a disappearing world. Its entire logic is based on reaching agreements, and its common decisions are monitored by rigorous institutions. The bloc not only applies these principles internally, it also exports them. Anyone who wants to become a member or work closely with the EU has to stick to the rules and accept certain values. Netanyahu has openly said that he doesn'€t like this. He reproached the EU for being the only international organization to impose certain conditions on the provision of aid to Israel. Viktor Orban seconds him in this. You can't lecture other countries, he says: Every nation is a distinct organism with its own interests, which it would do well to defend.

An anti-George Soros billboard in Hungary
Orban has found creative ways to undermine the work of American-Hungarian philanthropist George SorosImage: AFP/Getty Images

Historical revisionism

However, when others take Israel as an example, it can prove dangerous to Israel itself. The country only exists because of others'€ nationalism. The illusion that a nation is some sort of natural organism — a big family, so to speak — was behind the exclusion, persecution and, ultimately, murder of Jews, not just in Germany but in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe, too.

The idea of the "€Judeo-Christian foundation" upon which European nations are supposedly based — a phrase that Viktor Orban is fond of using — is false. Like the idea of "Germanness," the "Hungarianness" of which the prime minister likes to speak was shaped by anti-Semitism. When Orban spoke recently of Hungary's Jewish heritage and the Jewish origins of Hungarian folk songs, even likening the sound of the Hungarian national anthem to an Old Testament jeremiad, it was not a recognition of diversity. It is the invocation of a new, false unity — and in an "illiberal democracy" it is always the majority that decides who belongs. No one simply does so by right.

Read more: Austrian chancellor vows to fight anti-Semitism, promote Israeli security

Today it is Muslims who are being targeted for exclusion. It should not be a cause for astonishment if it'€s the Jews again tomorrow. To some extent, they already are excluded. When invoking Hungary'€s "€Jewish heritage," Orban avoids saying a single word about the Holocaust. He describes the dictator Miklos Horthy as an "exceptional statesman." This is the man who introduced anti-Jewish employment restrictions as early as 1920, who subsequently passed race laws after the German model, and who finally sent hundreds of thousands of people to Auschwitz. Wherever ethnic nationalist ideology is preached, Jews are always among the victims. To that extent, at least, the coordinates of world politics have not changed.

Journalist Norbert Mappes-Niediek lives in Graz, Austria and reports on southeastern European affairs for numerous German-language newspapers.

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