Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a controversial visit to Hungary this week, enlivened by what may, or may not, have been an inadvertent “hot mic” incident.
The first visit to Budapest in over 30 years by an Israeli prime minister has been overshadowed by accusations of antisemitism directed at the Hungarian government over the past few weeks.
A recent remark by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban praising Regent Horthy, the Hungarian leader who collaborated with the Nazis during World War Two, elicited angry criticism from the country’s Jewish community.
Then, last week, the Israeli Foreign Ministry retracted a letter written by its Budapest ambassador to protest against the antisemitic undertones of a Hungarian government campaign against the Jewish financier George Soros.
However, Mr Netanyahu has been trying to build a pro-Israel alliance in Central Europe and was anxious not to create tensions with his Hungarian counterpart.
After their meeting on Tuesday, Mr Orban said that “every Hungarian government has the duty to protect all of its citizens, regardless of their heritage. During World War Two, Hungary did not comply with this moral and political requirement. This was the sin, because at the time, we decided that instead of protecting the Jewish community, we chose collaboration with the Nazis.”
Whether or not this statement will be sufficient for today’s Jewish community, which has accused Mr Orban’s government of downplaying the extent to which Hungarian citizens helped the Germans deport Jews to Auschwitz, remains to be seen.
On Wednesday, the leaders of Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics, representing — together with Hungary — the Visegrad Group, arrived in Budapest for a joint five-country summit.
As the leaders were sitting down to their meeting, a microphone in the room that had been left on transmitted to journalists’ headphones remarks being made by Mr Netanyahu.
The comments mainly amounted to severe criticism of the European Union. Mr Netanyahu said that “Europe has to decide if it wants to live and thrive or if it wants to shrivel and disappear”, and that both “Europe’s security and Europe’s economic future... mandate a different policy towards Israel.”
He claimed that “the European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel... On political conditions.” The Israeli PM added that, by contrast, China and India were not putting any limitations on their dealings with Israel.
Seeing that three days earlier Mr Netanyahu had been in Paris, where he met President Emmanuel Macron, he may have been embarrassed by such blatant criticism of Europe’s leaders going public.
However after the meeting, he seemed unperturbed and even joked: “I’ll be brief because I understand the journalists have already been briefed”. Judging by the reactions of his supporters on social media — one Likudnik tweeted “all we’ve learnt is that Bibi stands up for Israel also in closed rooms” — as far as his base at home was concerned, the hot-mic incident worked in his favour.