Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised eyebrows last month when he met in Jerusalem with Matteo Salvini, Italy’s firebrand interior minister and deputy prime minister who is known for his extreme anti-immigrant views. Prominent Jews, both in Israel and in the diaspora, criticized the trip, which came on the heels of visits to Israel by other far-right populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. In an email interview with WPR, Shimon Stein, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany who is now a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, explains why many in Israel see these cozy relationships as a betrayal of the country’s core values.
World Politics Review: Why have far-right European leaders like Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban sought to cultivate close ties with Israel in recent years?
Shimon Stein: The short answer is opportunism. It is not that the Orbans and Salvinis of the world have suddenly decided to join the Zionist movement due to the strength of their convictions. Rather, they and some other right-wing leaders believe that befriending the Jewish state can help deflect international criticism of their anti-democratic policies. In many cases, their newfound love of Israel contrasts with their cold stance toward Jewish populations in their own countries. In Hungary, for example, the Orban government has spearheaded an anti-Semitic campaign against the philanthropist George Soros. Notably, this campaign has been opposed by the local Jewish community but not by the current Israeli government.