Netanyahu slams EU for 'absolutely crazy' demands on Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday denounced the EU's political demands on Israel as "absolutely crazy", in remarks leaked from a closed-door meeting with eastern and central European leaders in Budapest.
Netanyahu met the Visegrad Four leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, who backed Israel and called for an improvement in the EU's relations with the state.
"The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel... in every area on political conditions," he said in a recording heard by AFP.
"It's crazy, it's absolutely crazy," he added.
Netanyahu cited China, Russia and India as countries who do business with "innovation giant Israel" and "don't care about political issues".
Brussels has repeatedly condemned Israel's building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and its crackdown on civil society groups critical of the government.
"Europe has to decide whether it wants to live and thrive or if it wants to shrivel and disappear," he told the four prime ministers.
"Don't undermine that one Western country that defends European values and European interests and prevents another mass migration to Europe."
Support in Brussels
Netanyahu asked the four premiers point blank to support his country in Brussels.
"If you, as the Visegrad group, can begin to advance this conception, I think this would be... beneficial to you but I think it would actually be beneficial to all of Europe.
"We're part of European civilisation. You look at the Middle East - Europe stops in Israel. That's it."
At a later press briefing Netanyahu repeated the statements in more diplomatic language, saying Israel "serves a unique function in being the one Western country in the region, the one country that is able to limit and fight from within the region this great danger to all of us."
However Netanyahu's visit came amid criticism from Hungarian Jewish groups for a controversial poster campaign backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attacking the work of Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros.
Many of the billboards, which feature a picture of the 86-year-old Jewish investor, with the legend, "Let's not allow Soros to have the last laugh", have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. Jewish leaders warn that the campaign is stirring fears among the country's Jewish population.
Addressing Orban and Netanyahu in a ceremonial hall near the main synagogue in Budapest, Andras Heisler, chairman of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Federations (Mazsihisz) said it was unacceptable that the campaign triggered fear among Jews.
"Today, in Hungary an all-out propaganda campaign could be started with visual and linguistic tools that triggered bad feelings among us Jews," Heisler said. His mother, 92, who survived the Holocaust, was in the audience.
Some 400,000 Hungarian Jews died in Nazi death camps during the Second World War.
"There can be a debate about the government's intentions, but the reason why it became unacceptable to me was that Jews in Hungary have started to fear," said Heisler.
Orban told Netanyahu that his country stood firmly against anti-Semitism after the "crime" of failing to protect its Jewish citizens during World War Two.
Orban, himself often accused in Brussels of flouting liberal democratic values such as press freedom, said he and other Visegrad leaders would support better relations between the EU and Israel.
The group will meet in 2018 in Jerusalem at Netanyahu's invitation.
"The Visegrad Four shares the Israeli view that external border defence is key," Orban told a press briefing. "Free movement of people without controls raises the risk of terror."
Orban has been criticised in the EU for erecting a razor wire border fence and refusing to accept migrants under EU agreements, preferring "ethnic homogeneity".
But he backed down from a recent rhetorical overture toward far-right groups amid accusations of anti-Semitism.
"The EU should appreciate the efforts Israel makes for the (Middle East) region's stability, which serve Europe as it spares us from newer and newer waves of migration," Orban said.
The recent closeness of Netanyahu with right-wing eastern European leaders such as Orban has been viewed with suspicion in the European Union.
The comments were the latest example of divergence between west and east Europe, where questions of national sovereignty, migration and civic freedoms have also stirred friction. US President Donald Trump lent support this month to Poland, also a target of criticism by the EU, with a visit to Warsaw.