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Netanyahu and Orbán’s close ties bring Israel’s Euro 2024 qualifying matches to Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Even before last month’s Hamas attacks in Israel, the leader of Hungary had long promoted his country as the safest in Europe for Jews. Now the Israeli men’s soccer team is taking his word and heading to a tiny Hungarian village as it prepares to play its remaining home games in the Euro 2024 qualifying tournament.

With fears of antisemitic acts on the rise around Europe, concern for the players’ security is top of mind. Now they’ll be in an opulent stadium thought to be the pet project of a well-known soccer fanatic: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself.

Israel will host “home” games against Switzerland next Wednesday and Romania three days later as it chases a qualifying place in the continental championship, which would be its first since joining the European soccer confederation UEFA in 1994.

The match against Switzerland had been set for Oct. 12 in Tel Aviv, but UEFA suspended all games in Israel due to security concerns. The match against Romania had been set for Tel Aviv on Nov. 18.

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The decision to bring the matches to Felcsut, a village of around 1,900 people where Orbán spent much of his childhood, reflects the close relationship the right-wing leader has nurtured with Israel, and his deep political affinities with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Longtime allies and fellow practitioners of “illiberal” governance — a term coined by Orbán that denotes a rejection of the tenets of liberal democracy — the two leaders share a similar approach to populist politics. And with Netanyahu at the helm of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, the parallels have never been stronger.

Orbán is a staunchly anti-immigration nationalist who critics say has overseen a radical erosion of democratic norms since taking office in 2010. He is seen as a pioneer of some of the same tactics Netanyahu has been accused of employing in Israel: subjugation of the judiciary, antagonism toward the European Union and cracking down on civil society and human rights groups.

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The Hungarian leader has used his relationship with Israel to fend off accusations that some in his government harbor antisemitic views, and pointed to his close relationship with Netanyahu as a clear sign of his government’s pro-Jewish bona fides.

Yacov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, acknowledged that the close relationship between Orbán and Netanyahu, as well as Orbán’s dedication to soccer, have played a role in bringing Israel’s team and the matches in Felcsut.

“We have a very good combination of personal connections and relations (and) sheer love of sports and football in the Hungarian government,” Hadas-Handelsman told The Associated Press. “There’s no home like home, but under the circumstances, since we cannot play at home … Hungary and Felcsut will be a good alternative.”

The matches will be played in the Pancho Arena, a 3,500-seat stadium that opened in 2014 and is located just steps away from Orbán’s holiday estate. The arena, with a capacity nearly two times greater than Felcsut’s population, has been the subject of controversy ever since its opening. The prime minister has been accused of funneling public money through a corporate tax scheme to a soccer club he founded there.

Yet beyond the political overtones of Hungary hosting Israel’s games, Orbán’s fight to make his country a safe place for Jews made it an even more attractive location for the team to chase its qualifying spot. Orbán has instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy on antisemitism, leading Netanyahu to refer to him as “ a true friend of Israel.”

When Netanyahu traveled to Budapest in 2017, the first visit to the country by an Israeli prime minister in nearly 30 years, Orbán acknowledged that Hungary had committed a “sin” during World War II, when some 550,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

“Instead of protecting the Jewish community, we chose collaboration with the Nazis,” Orbán said. “This can never happen again. In the future, the Hungarian government will protect all its citizens.”

Recently, Orbán has banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the wake of Israel’s bombing in the Gaza Strip and pointed to such protests in some Western European cities as further proof that his government has done a better job combating antisemitism than its Western counterparts.

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And in late October, Hungary was one of only four European countries to vote against a United Nations resolution for a humanitarian truce in Gaza.

Slomo Koves, chief rabbi for the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities, said that while antisemitism still exists in Hungary, he believes that from a security perspective, the country is a logical choice for hosting Israel’s team in such uncertain days.

“Antisemitism exists everywhere in the world … Hungary also has its antisemitism problem,” he said. “But at the same time, we don’t see physical threats or atrocities, practically none in the last couple of years in Hungary.”

“As a Hungarian rabbi, obviously I’m proud of Hungary and I’m proud of Hungary’s strong stand on the side of the Jewish community and of our safety, and on the side of the state of Israel,” he added.

That strong stand has not been without its faults. Some Hungarian officials, including Orbán himself, have been slammed by Jewish groups for their praise of Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s World War II-era leader who allied Hungary with Nazi Germany.

Orbán’s government has also conducted numerous campaigns against the Jewish Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros, which have drawn ire from Hungarian Jewish groups and the embassies of the United States and Israel.

In 2017, Israeli ambassador to Hungary Yossi Amrani condemned an anti-Soros billboard campaign financed by the Hungarian government that was widely accused of playing into antisemitic stereotypes. The billboards not only evoke “sad memories,” Amrani wrote at the time, “but also sow hatred and fear.”

But in another testament to Orbán’s close ties with Netanyahu’s government, Israel overruled its own ambassador the following day, saying his statement was not meant to “delegitimize” criticism of Soros — a figure Netanyahu himself, like Orbán, has accused of working to destabilize his government.

Next week’s matches in Felcsut likely will deepen the ties between Budapest and Jerusalem at an uncertain time elsewhere.

“Here in Hungary, the community feels safe, and people feel free to come here,” Hadas-Handelsman, the Israeli ambassador, said.