On 3 March, the Times of Israel reported that Hungary plans to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in April. The news site quoted Israeli foreign ministry sources as stating that the two countries’ foreign ministers, Péter Szijjártó and Eli Cohen, had held intensive talks on the matter before the parties reached an agreement. The move would be a very strong stand for Israel from Budapest; however, Hungarian officials have not confirmed the reports.
Friends in Need
The Times of Israel has assessed the Hungarian government’s supposed decision as an act to support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu returned to power as prime minister in December, putting together a nationalist-religious coalition government seen as the most right-wing cabinet of Israel ever. The Israeli premier has been caught in the political crossfire both at home and abroad over a government draft that would reform the Israeli judiciary system. In Israel, there have been weeks of protests against the government’s plan which reached even the IDF, the cornerstone of the country’s security. Elite units, such as pilots, are refusing to train in protest against the government, while reservists are threatening to refuse to serve if the government carries out its planned reform. Netanyahu has also come under criticism for some of his foreign policy moves, including from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but the legal reform was also discussed in his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. Now the Israeli premier could present the Hungarian embassy moving to Jerusalem as a major diplomatic success amidst the political instability that surrounds him.
Moving a country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem sends a significant message not only to Israel, but also to the international community.
It is an expression by a country of its support for Israel’s position that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state,
contrary to the international consensus. The move would make Hungary the first EU country to open an embassy in Jerusalem, going against the bloc’s joint position. It would most likely be seen by both Israel and Hungary as a precedent-setting act, in the hope that more EU countries would follow Budapest’s example. There have been similar rumours about other EU countries such as Austria or Romania, or even some V4 countries. There has been speculation that the latter group might jointly announce moving their embassies to Jerusalem. However, none of these expectations have materialised so far. But given the deepening Hungarian-Israeli relations in recent years, the leaked news about the relocation of the Hungarian embassy may be well-founded this time.
Relations between Hungary and Israel have grown closer in recent years, in particular due to the friendship between the two like-minded leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orbán. The relationship between the two prime ministers is based on more than just personal rapport: they are, in a sense, also ‘brothers in arms’, since both leaders feel they are faced with the same international establishment’s opposition when they seek to promote the interests of their nations.
Hungary regularly stands up for Israel in the UN and the EU and opposes joint resolutions condemning the Jewish state, breaking the European consensus many times and taking Israel’s side. ‘I have a general problem with these European statements on Israel. They are usually pretty biased, pretty much unbalanced. They do not take into consideration the security concerns of Israel and the Israeli people…the efforts Israelis make to have a stable and secure Middle-East,’ Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó argued in May 2021 after Hungary—as the only EU country—rejected the draft of a joint EU declaration on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bilateral relations also include substantial cooperation in the fields of economic and military development, as well as in science and innovation. Israel’s traditions of innovation and state-of-the-art technology have been welcomed in Hungary in many economic sectors, even including space exploration. In addition, Hungary has also decided to purchase the radar system used in Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ aerial defence.
‘The alliance of Hungary and Israel is unshakable’, said President of Hungary Katalin Novák, after she met with President of the State of Israel Isaac Herzog on 17 November 2022 in Jerusalem.
‘2023 will be another successful year in Hungarian-Israeli relations,’ Hungarian FM Péter Szijjártó emphasised after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in January in Davos, Switzerland. Of course, it was not anticipated at the time that Budapest would actually take the serious step of moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
Moving Mission to Jerusalem: A Recurring Topic
On 6 December 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move prompted a huge international outcry at the time, but despite apocalyptic visions about the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the US embassy opened anyway and has been operating in Jerusalem undisturbed ever since 2018, although, contrary to the US and Israel’s intentions, the move did not set a precedent. Since the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem, only Guatemala, Kosovo and Honduras have followed suit, while Papua New Guinea just announced its plans to do so in recent days.
Although Hungary has voiced its support for a two-state solution, it did not join the EU’s common position condemning the US’s decision on Jerusalem, which was interpreted as a defiance of the international consensus. After President Trump’s historical decision, Hungary opened a trade office in Jerusalem in 2019, in a gesture towards both Israel and the Republican President. Back then, Hungary had ruled out moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
The issue of the relocation of the Hungarian embassy was raised again in February this year when the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Political Director Balázs Orbán told the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom that the Hungarian government would consider relocating its mission, at Israel’s specific request. At the time, negotiations between the two countries were presumably already underway.
More Than Fake News?
The significance of the matter is illustrated by the fact that not only the Hungarian and Israeli media but also the international press quickly picked up on the Hungarian government’s alleged plan. After queries from several Hungarian media outlets, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry made the following comment: ‘The trade section of our embassy in Israel was moved to Jerusalem years ago. The opening was announced jointly by Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We will provide updates on any changes affecting the embassy.’
President of Hungary Katalin Novák was also asked about the issue during her recent trip to Prague. The President stated: ‘I have read the press reports too; no decision has been taken in Hungary to relocate our Israeli embassy.’
Spokesman for the European Commission Peter Stano said that the Commission had not yet received any official notification that Hungary intended to move its embassy to Jerusalem and therefore he did not wish to comment. However, the spokesperson indicated that the European Union has a long-standing position, stemming from a 1980 UN resolution, calling for all countries to withdraw their embassies from Jerusalem. In this spirit, all EU member states and the European Commission itself currently have their diplomatic missions located in Tel Aviv. Stano reiterated the EU’s firm commitment to a ‘negotiated and viable’ two-state solution and in this context reaffirmed that the EU’s position on Jerusalem remains unchanged.