Why do Central European nationalists love Israel?

Hungarian Prime Minister Orban and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu attend a news conference in Budapest

Periods of major political transformation have never been particularly easy for Jews, and the current moment is no exception. Anti-Semitism is ascendant in Europe and many fear that the resurgence of nationalism will exacerbate it.

But there is a twist: anti-Semitism’s rise in Europe is being accompanied by a growing fascination among Europe’s hard right with Israel and, in particular, its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This captivation is particularly acute among the governing national populist parties in Central Europe, a region where anti-Semitism has historically found fertile ground.

Central European leaders view Mr. Netanyahu as a close ally. Last year, the Visegrad Group, an organisation for cooperation between Central European countries, announced plans to hold a meeting in Israel — its first outside of Europe. That plan was ultimately foiled by a spat between Poland and Israel over the Holocaust, but the symbolism was nonetheless significant and leaders from the three remaining Visegrad Group countries — Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — went to Israel. For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has cultivated relationships with Central European populist leaders. He called Viktor Orban a ‘true friend of Israel’ at the same time that prominent members of the Jewish community in Budapest were criticizing the Hungarian leader for the anti-Semitic tones of his campaign against George Soros.

Why are Central European populists attracted to Mr. Netanyahu’s Israel in the way that Western European leftists of the 1960s and ’70s were once mesmerized by Fidel Castro’s Cuba?

Israel’s Eastern European politics

Undeniably, there is realpolitik here. Israel is a rational actor and like any rational actor, it wants allies. Mr Netanyahu sees in the governments of Central Europe potential defenders within the European Union who could help dampen pressure from Brussels over Israel’s checkered human rights record. To that end, he has frequently visited the region. His efforts have been repaid: The Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania recently blocked a European Union statement criticising the United States over its plan to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

For Central European governments, a special relationship with Israel is a way to benefit from Israel’s dynamic economy and cosy up to President Trump and his pro-Israel administration. It is widely believed in the region that in order for a leader of a small Central European country to get an invitation to visit the White House, he should either buy a lot of American military equipment or Mr Netanyahu should lobby for the visit.

But the populist alliance with Israel is…

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