The comments from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that were caught Wednesday by a live microphone in Budapest may not have been phrased exactly as he would have put them for public consumption, but they weren’t totally surprising, either. During a meeting with the leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia that was supposed to be closed to reporters, Netanyahu said that Israel has bombed Iranian arms convoys bound for Hezbollah in Syria “dozens and dozens of times”—something that has been widely reported, though usually not explicitly acknowledged by the Israeli government.
Netanyahu also blasted European governments for requiring progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a precondition for closer trade relations. “There is no logic here,” the AP quoted the prime minister as saying. “Europe is undermining its security by undermining Israel. Europe is undermining its progress by undermining the connection with Israeli innovation because of a crazy attempt to create conditions [for peace with the Palestinians].” Netanyahu has decried European countries as being unduly critical of Israel in the past.
Netanyahu also said in his captured remarks that “the European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel,” noting Russia, China, and India’s willingness to do business without bringing up Israel’s domestic politics.
The leaders Netanyahu was meeting with could likely sympathize with his frustrations. The four have bristled at pressure and criticism from Brussels over their reluctance to resettle refugees. Poland has faced criticism from the EU over a series of recent reforms widely seen as consolidating power in the hands of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party and undermining the rule of law. The EU has threatened to suspend Poland’s voting rights over a recent move to put courts under government control. The EU has also launched legal action against Hungary’s right-wing government for its attempt to shut down the Budapest-based, George Soros–funded Central European University.
Even before the hot mic incident, Netanyahu’s visit to Hungary was controversial due to the Israeli government’s awkward refusal to denounce an anti-Soros advertising campaign supported by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Billboards recently posted in Hungary with government support portray the 86-year-old investor and philanthropist as an enemy of the state over his support for immigration and pro-democracy groups and urged Hungarians not “to allow Soros to have the last laugh.” Jewish groups say the campaign is implicitly anti-Semitic, and many of the posters have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. (The Jewish, Hungarian-born Soros survived the Holocaust in hiding before immigrating to England after World War II.)
Israel’s ambassador to Hungary initially denounced the campaign, saying it “evokes sad memories” of the suffering of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust. But the Israeli foreign ministry followed up hours later with a “clarification” that the ambassador’s statement was not “meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments.”
Soros is not a popular figure with Israel’s government due to his Open Society Foundation’s support for a number of groups that have criticized Israeli government policies including Human Rights Watch, the liberal Jewish lobbying group J Street, and the anti-occupation group B’Tselem.
Still, it’s striking that the Israeli government’s first impulse was to defend a campaign with anti-Semitic overtones in a country where a neo-Nazi party won 20 percent of the vote in the latest election. Squelching criticism of Israeli government priorities apparently takes precedence.