Hungary's Orban pledges 'zero tolerance' for anti-Semitism in Israel visit

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during a visit by the Hungarian premier to Jerusalem on July 19, 2019

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pledged "zero tolerance" for anti-Semitism on Thursday during a controversial visit to Israel after facing accusations of stoking anti-Jewish sentiment back home.

Orban and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have found common cause in their right-wing views despite controversy surrounding the Hungarian leader's nationalist rhetoric.

The two men greeted each other warmly in Jerusalem, but Orban faced a somewhat tougher audience later when he met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who warned against "neo-fascism."

Meeting Netanyahu, Orban said "I can assure the prime minister that Hungary has a policy of zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism."

His Israeli counterpart also defended Orban against accusations of stoking anti-Semitism.

"I heard you speak as a true friend of Israel about the need to combat anti-Semitism," Netanyahu said, noting that Hungary has spent millions of dollars renovating synagogues, among other moves.

Orban, who described Netanyahu and himself as "a Jewish patriot and a Hungarian patriot", lauded cooperation between the two nations.

Netanyahu has sought closer ties with European nations willing to provide strong backing to Israel.

Hungary in December abstained when the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

It also joined the Czech Republic and Romania in blocking a European Union statement criticising Washington's decision to move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem.

"You have stood up for Israel time and time again in international forums," Netanyahu said.

"It is deeply appreciated, and it is important."

- 'Neo-fascism' -

Later in the day, Rivlin acknowledged what he described as Orban's efforts against anti-Semitism, but he also spoke of the "danger" of neo-fascism.

"I know what you are doing against anti-Semitism, I know the efforts," Rivlin said.

"But we have to remember when we say 'never again', neo-fascism and the neo-fascist groups are a real danger to the very existence of the free world."

Orban arrived on Wednesday evening and was due to tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and meet one of Israel's chief rabbis later Thursday.

He will visit the Western Wall in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on Friday before departing.

In a break with protocol for EU leaders, who usually meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah during such visits, he has no scheduled talks with Palestinian leaders.

During Orban's visit, his deputy Zsolt Semjen will visit Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, under Palestinian Authority control in the occupied West Bank.

A year ago, Netanyahu made the first trip to Budapest by an Israeli prime minister since the fall of communism in 1989.

During that visit, he denounced "absolutely crazy" EU demands of Israel, such as those related to Israel's occupation of the West Bank, in closed-door remarks picked up by a microphone and overheard by journalists.

He extended praise to all of the Visegrad Group, which includes Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and whose nationalist stances have been a thorn in Brussels' side.

He also met those countries' leaders in Budapest last year.

Orban's visit has provoked concern in Israel over allegations he has stoked anti-Semitism in Hungary with nationalist rhetoric and a campaign against US Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

A government poster campaign last year attacking Soros for his alleged support of mass immigration drew heavy criticism over what some saw as its use of anti-Semitic imagery.

Orban has stressed the campaign was about Soros's political views.

Netanyahu has also criticised Soros for backing human rights groups critical of the Israeli government.

Orban's praise of wartime leader and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy as "an exceptional statesman" for rebuilding Hungary after World War I has also sparked criticism.