In Israel, top Orban aide says Russian aggression violates international law

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As frustration mounts in Europe and the US over Budapest’s stance on the war in Ukraine, a top adviser to Prime Minister Viktor Orban reiterated in Israel on Wednesday that “the Russian aggression is against international law.”

“We would like to see a sovereign Ukraine with its internationally acknowledged territory,” Gergely Gulyas, who heads the Hungarian prime minister’s office, told The Times of Israel.

Last month, Orban insisted that Ukraine cannot win its war with Russia and argued Washington must step in to end the conflict.

Orban added that “our heart is with the Ukrainians” and said: “We understand how much they suffer.”

“It’s not a question that this territory belongs to Ukraine, but the reality is that Ukraine’s chance to get back every occupied territory is not too high,” explained Gulyas. “Therefore, they have to decide about the time of the ceasefire and the peace talks and we are for immediate peace talks.”

In 2014, Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and parts of the eastern Donbas region. Since early 2022, Russian forces have held Ukraine’s southeastern coast as well, though Kyiv is thought to be in the beginning stages of a major counter-offensive.

Gulyas also stressed that Budapest wants security guarantees for Ukraine, but is currently against Kyiv joining NATO.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on March 27, 2023. (Denes Erdos/AP)

“If now Ukraine would be a member of NATO, that would be a world war,” he said. “We would like to avoid it.”

Budapest has angered Europe with its resistance to Finland and Sweden joining the transatlantic military alliance. Turkey and Hungary, attempting to gain leverage over allies in separate political battles, delayed Finland’s bid to come under the NATO umbrella, and Stockholm’s progress remains blocked.

Critics say Orban’s opposition to NATO expansion comes from a desire to cozy up to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Budapest insists that it is because of unfair Swedish and Finnish criticism over the rule of law in Hungary.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, November 16, 2022. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

“If I say about you only the wrongest things, independent of reality, and then I ask for your support, you will say, okay, maybe, but we have to clarify some details,” said Gulyas. “If it’s true what the Swedish politicians and government have said about Hungary, why would they like to be in a club with us?”

He said Budapest had the same issue with Helsinki, “but the Finnish behavior against Hungary was not the same as the Swedish.”

Stockholm recently joined 14 other EU countries backing a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice over Hungary’s 2021 law that officials in much of Europe and the US say discriminates against LGBTQ individuals. Hungary says the law is meant to protect children, and Gulyas stressed that his country would not back down on the issue.

Hungary has also angered other European countries for its continued energy ties with Russia. Budapest gets the preponderance of its gas and oil from Russia, and in April, Hungary’s foreign minister signed a series of deals in Moscow safeguarding and even expanding the energy flow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking to the media during a joint news conference with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, February 1, 2022. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP)

In addition, Budapest has blocked energy sanctions against Russia, citing energy security.

Ukraine accused Hungary of funding Putin’s war, while Budapest says it has no choice but to guarantee the country’s energy supply until other options are available.

“The goal is diversification,” Gulyas said. “The goal is that if we would like to buy 100% of our energy supply not from Russia, that would be an option.”

Polina Shulga, 27, an administrator in a rehabilitation center in Kyiv, with her three-year-old daughter Aria after fleeing from Ukraine, run for a train to Budapest, on a train platform in the Hungarian border town of Zahony, Hungary, Monday, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Gulyas stressed that Hungary is the only country piping diesel fuel into Ukraine, “which is the diesel fuel that they are probably using in their tanks in the country.”

Bibi’s buddy in Budapest

Gulyas met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, and sat with Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer the day before. The fact that Netanyahu made time to talk with a mid-level minister shows the importance he places on the relationship with Hungary.

Budapest has in recent years been Jerusalem’s staunchest supporter in the European Union, blocking several efforts to issue statements critical of Israeli policies. For instance, in 2020, Hungary was one of the only countries that did not publicly speak out against Israel’s plan, since scuttled, to unilaterally annex swaths of the West Bank.

Netanyahu has long had close relations with Orban, who has been in power since 2010. Their bond has further tightened since Netanyahu’s return to power, with the two showering praise upon each other and looking to further both bilateral ties and their own connection.

Rumors have been swirling in recent weeks that Budapest is planning on moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) with his Hungarian counterpart Péter Szijjártó in Budapest, May 31, 2023. (Israeli Embassy in Hungary)

In Budapest last month, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that Hungary would be moving its embassy in the near future, but Budapest denied that any such decision had been made.

Gulyas would only say that “it’s a part of the discussion between the two governments, and if it will be the [decision], we will publish it.”

If it does take the step, Hungary would be the first European Union member state to open an embassy in Jerusalem, which the bloc opposes in the absence of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We are there for our own foreign policy and not a common EU policy,” he said. “It’s our business.”

“The EU is not an empire project, it’s a strong important cooperation between countries and the common market and common borders and a lot of very good things, but not an empire. Therefore we have our own sovereignty to determine our opinion.”

Soros troubles

In May, the Anti-Defamation League released a poll showing that 37% of Hungarians harbor antisemitic attitudes.

Gulyas said that such findings run counter to his everyday experience in Hungary.

A billboard with a poster of Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros with the words ‘National consultation about the Soros plan – Don’t let it pass without any words’ is seen in Budapest on October 16, 2017. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP)

“We introduced during the first Orban government International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in every school, every year on April 16,” Gulyas explained. “We have a Jewish museum. We have Jewish culture. We renovated cemeteries and renovated synagogues. We support the Jewish community in Hungary and they can live in the best way as they can nowadays in Europe.”

“The official government behavior is zero tolerance against any antisemitism.”

Orban has also been criticized for targeting Holocaust survivor and left-wing philanthropist George Soros, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and financier known for his left-wing philanthropy, who Orban has called a “public enemy” for allegedly backing uncontrolled mass immigration.

The Hungarian leader tweeted a Godfather meme this week in reference to news that Soros was passing his philanthropy empire to his son Alexander.

US Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman, a frequent critic of Orban, responded that the “dog-whistle conspiracy theories are like the plot of Godfather 3: predictable & troubling.”

“I think it was a very good joke,” Gulyas said.

The younger Soros told The Wall Street Journal he is “more political” than his father, and that one of his top aims would be to push back against a possible second term by former president Donald Trump.

“So the son of George Soros emphasized that he is more of a politician than his father,” said Gulyas. “We tried to check his activity in the last years. It will not be better for countries who would like to ensure their own sovereignty in the future.”

“It’s a danger for every country who would like to have sovereignty and who would like to defend values which are very important for us.”

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