When Italy’s far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini—who has called for all Roma to be put on a register and for restrictions on shops owned by ethnic minorities—visited Israel last year, his trip included a one-to-one meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu and a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
Israeli left-wing activists greeted the visit with a doctored image showing Salvini’s face inside a washing machine. Their point was brutal: Yad Vashem was how Israel laundered unseemly reputations.
A yarmulke-wearing photo at the Western Wall and a wreath-laying at Jerusalem’s flagship museum have become de rigeur for many of Europe’s most radical nationalist leaders. Islamophobia, anti-migrant rhetoric and even accusations of anti-semitism are no barrier. It was a tour taken by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán last summer, despite his relentless and sinister campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros and his support for the rehabilitation of Miklós Horthy, the wartime leader who sent more than 400,000 Jews to their deaths.
A state born out of centuries of European anti-semitism now appears to seek its strategic allies in the continent’s populist right-wing parties. Israel’s previous, more mainstream, partners are too wedded to the two-state solution—a prospect Jerusalem now deems antithetical to its interests.
The process has been building for a while. In December 2010 the right wing of Netanyahu’s Likud Party hosted a conference in Tel Aviv attended by a clutch of far-right politicians. What began as a flirtation has turned into a full-blown love affair.
Even Holocaust revisionism or, in the case of Austria’s Freedom Party, actual Nazi heritage, can be overlooked. When Poland’s ultra-nationalist government tried to criminalise any suggestion that the country had been complicit in Nazi atrocities, Netanyahu scrambled to help its prime minister reach a face-saving compromise that appalled Holocaust scholars. In Hungary, too, there are fears that a new Shoah museum will distort the Hungarian role in the genocide.
Hungary is also the most striking example of Jerusalem’s policy disdaining the wishes of local Jewish communities. In 2017, after intense lobbying by the Hungarian Jewish community, Israel’s ambassador in Budapest warned that the anti-Soros campaign “not only evokes sad memories but also sow[s] hatred and fear.” He was immediately slapped down by head office. A firm retraction added condemnation of Soros as someone who continuously undermined Israel “by funding organisations that defame the Jewish state.”
Israel has a long history of pragmatism in foreign policy. A founding principle of its realpolitik was, understandably, that the country was too isolated to be terribly choosy about potential alliances. Netanyahu’s closeness with other populist strongmen—Donald Trump chief among them—makes some sense. In December, for instance, Netanyahu paid a state visit to Brazil to laud the new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, hoping to tempt him away from historic alliances with Iran and the Arab states.
But what strategic benefit is there in these odious new European relationships? In return for helping whitewash neo-Nazi pasts, legitimising xenophobia and traumatising the Jewish diaspora, all Israel achieves is some promises to move embassies to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Europe’s far-right parties see these alliances based on shared values, admiring Israel as a nationalist role model, with a similarly obsessive interest in sovereignty and fear of Islam.
Make no mistake, Israel is still very much a democracy—but the trajectory is not encouraging. Last year’s Nation State law, which gives Jews the exclusive right to self-determination and downgrades the status of Arabic, was just the latest in a series of anti-democratic legislation. In common with autocracies such as Russia, Israel now singles out NGOs that rely on foreign funding, in practice almost all human rights groups. Another law bans Israelis from supporting a boycott of Israel or any part of the occupied territories; state funding can be cut for institutions that mark the Nakba (catastrophe), the Arabic term for Israel’s creation. No matter that a fifth of its citizens are Palestinians.
Many of these moves have proved controversial, but Netanyahu is still likely to form the next government after April’s upcoming elections. Maybe this is how all countries based on ethnic nationalism end up; and maybe the populists in Europe and in the Jewish state really do have more in common than political expediency.