You can criticize certain people, as long as it is not accompanied by anti-Semitic tones

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We should distinguish between legitimate criticism and stereotypes that may create a reaction, which is of concern, says Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani in an interview with FüHü. He doesn’t want to judge the anti-immigration campaign of the Hungarian government, he states: every society should decide itself whether it accepts immigrants. Yossi Amrani says that Iran is a threat and Israel will take all possible measures, „diplomatic or others”, to preempt its excessive influence in Syria. He also talks about where he sees an opportunity to develop Israeli-Hungarian economic relations.

Yossi Amrani
Photo: Embassy of Israel

Last summer, the two prime ministers talked about the development of the economic relationship between the two countries. Are the results already visible?

The two prime ministers made quite a breakthrough in the relationship between the two countries on different aspects. Some aspects will take more time and more effort to accomplish. Once you decide on stronger economic cooperation, then it is about creating the conditions for it.

You see the appointment of State Secretary László Palkovics as head of the Hungarian-Israeli Joint Economic Committee. He is a doer, he has been to Israel a few times since the Prime Minister’s visit,

he is exploring different aspects of cooperation, basically scientific and technological,

translated into joint ventures.

The Committee will meet in Hungary in May. So, this is one avenue of cooperation. Last week we hosted a 3-day Israeli visit of the V4 innovation working group. This is the second round of meetings, the aim is to expose the Israeli high-tech environment to the V4 countries. Now the V4 have to conclude among themselves on the priorities. My counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade are very optimistic.

On our own, we try to encourage Israeli businessmen to explore the possibilities of investment in Hungary. We are more engaged as an embassy, there is an active economic department, which has not existed in the past. I would not say that we would see immediate results in the volume of trade, this would take more time, but on the aspect of academic, technological, scientific cooperation we definitely see the beginning.

The high-tech sector, innovation is very strong in Israel. Do you think that this will be the main focus of the cooperation?

There are different aspects. There is TEVA, it is an Israeli company, which is active in the country, though it is still undergoing certain restructuring. There is NNG, which is owned by Israelis. There are major Israeli investments in real estate development in the country.

The opportunity to invest in Hungary exists.

A government has to identify where it sees the advantage of joint cooperation, a win-win for both countries.

It can be agriculture, there is ongoing cooperation on this field, a Hungarian group is going to Israel every year, Israeli know-how is implemented in the country. There is cooperation on water management, Hungary is a leading country in that aspect.

What we see as a major aspect is safe cities, smart mobility and high-tech. That’s where you see a potential of cooperation. And cyber, whether it is civilian or any other kind of cyber use. I can’t go into specifics, because things are in the making. But there is a process, a trend, and you have to nurture and support this trend, but there is a commitment on both sides.

There has been a great emphasis on tourism in recent years, in both direction. Is it still growing?

The numbers are very high. You can never figure out the exact number of Israeli tourists, because many Israelis, once they fly to Europe, are using EU passports, many Israelis hold double citizenship. We have figures of Israelis using Israeli passports. The numbers are close to 200,000 a year.

This is a high number. Even if you don’t have the exact figures, it is enough to walk on certain places in Budapest to hear Hebrew. So

the presence of Israeli tourism is very high here,

there are some Israeli hotels in the city as well.

Photo: Embassy of Israel

I think that the future is to deploy more Israeli tourists all over in the country. Now they spend their time in Budapest, they love Budapest, they love coming here, they like eating in local restaurants – Budapest is well known. But we are now trying to expose other parts of the country. Balaton comes as a priority, but not only Balaton, there is a direct flight between Debrecen and Tel Aviv. This part of the country, Debrecen, Nyíregyháza and maybe other destinations can also be important.

The number of Wizz Air and El Al flights to Budapest is a clear indication that this is a profitable direct line between the countries and there is a demand for that. We see more Israelis visiting Hungary, ten times if not more, than Hungarians visiting Israel. Over there we should see more progress.

In recent years there were several political campaigns in Hungary that, many people said, had anti-Semitic tones. For example, the campaign against George Soros. What do you think about this?

I am very careful with the use of the word anti-Semitism. I would recommend to anyone to think in advance what it means to be an anti-Semite. For me, and this is my definition, to be an anti-Semite is to hold certain views of the Jewish people and Israel. Having a view on a certain individual like me or anyone else does not constitute anti-Semitism.

You can have your views on certain people, you can have your criticism on Israel, as long as this criticism is not accompanied by anti-Semitic tones.

For me to have anti-Semitic tones means to generalize certain prejudices and superstitions about the Jews.

What about when an MP shares a photo on which a person’s name appears on a dead pig?

I would distinguish between criticism, which is legitimate, and the use of certain images and certain stereotypes, which may create a certain reaction, which is of concern. If someone takes a photo of a Jewish person, or someone of Jewish origin, and it is not necessarily the same, it is a question of how you identify yourself, so, if someone takes a picture which is identified with a known Jew and has it with a slaughtered pig, then I would call it insensitive, bad taste, lack of proper judgment.

I would be very afraid to call it anti-Semitic, but at the same time I have to be very honest and very clear:

once those things may repeat itself and once people understand that the overtone or the general tone may be inciting against Jews and bring different terrible images from the past, then this is a real danger and real threat to the society, beyond the question of anti-Semitism.

At the end we are all supposed to be quite educated about the past, about each other.

Also, many people say that the narrative of the campaign against the asylum-seekers resembles a certain narrative from the 30s. For example, when politicians are talking about a globalist enemy that has no home, speculates with money… What do you think about this?

I would not judge the anti-immigration campaign in Hungary or in any other country. We have to be clear about the definitions. There are labor immigrants and there are human rights refugees. Once you deal with human rights refugees, then I think it is a human responsibility to provide shelter, to find a solution to the misery of people.

Israel is also facing a challenge of illegal immigration. People, who seek “shelter” there, are they prosecuted in their own country? It is not always the case. Some of them left a certain country and walked thousands of kilometers through many other countries and then they asked asylum in Israel. By international law,

you can leave your country and ask for asylum, but you have to do it in the first country of destination.

When you travel to many different countries and settle where the economic situation and the standard of living is much better, then it is a tough choice for the society whether it is willing to absorb immigrants or not. It is like asking to host someone in your home. A country is your collective home. You should be the ones to decide about absorbing others. This is not racism, this is not about immigrants, it is protecting your way of life.

In general, how do you see: is anti-Semitism a problem in today’s Hungary?

Photo: Embassy of Israel

I don’t want to talk about today’s Hungary, I think all over the world numbers and incidents show that we see the ongoing terrible face of anti-Semitism. In Hungary you see that the government is very active and very sensitive to the concerns of the Jewish community. You see the government investing in Jewish life and Jewish history.

But at the same time people have certain opinions, certain views, that’s what the public opinion polls show, which harbor certain anti-Semitism.

Jewish people are safe in this country.

But we are not yet in a world, where bigotism, xenophobia and prejudices are erased. This is the case not just in Hungary, but in many countries in Europe.

We are close to the Holocaust day in April, and you ask yourself whether the lesson has been learned in this continent. Some of the immigrants who come to Europe introduce again anti-Semitic views. This is also something to think about.

There is a vibrant Jewish cultural life in Budapest, but less so in the countryside. I know that you have visited many places in Hungary, do you think that Jewish cultural life can have a revival in the countryside as well?

I think that there can be and there should be. And I think that

the different Jewish organizations in the country should cooperate in introducing Jewish cultural life in the countryside.

If we would like to dispel certain prejudices, then it is about sharing culture, not imposing views. It is either through education, but also through cultural cooperation. In this regard, together with ZsiFi, the Jewish Film Festival, we started a joint project of a Jewish-Israeli film week. Hopefully this year we will deploy the festival in five other cities, not only in Budapest. We started last year, but it was only on a low scale. This year we have higher expectations.

We have now an exhibition of Israeli art. Any time we can, we are trying to introduce Israeli culture to the countryside, but we need partners for that. More than what we have now.

Israel condemned the Polish Holocaust-law. Are there negotiations about it, or any development?

Israel considers Poland a key strategic ally, an important country within the EU and the Visegrad Group. We have strong cooperation in different aspects. There are now certain differences between the two governments on the respective Polish law.

Regardless of the Polish sensitivity, which we recognize,

there is a need to recognize Jewish and Israeli sensitivity.

The two governments decided to form an expert’s commission from both countries. Having in mind the good cooperation, the history of the relationship between the countries, it is very important that they committed themselves and engage in open exchange of views to better understand the sensitivities. Hopefully it would provide them and us with an insight that would allow us to resolve this crisis.

When we talk about Israel it is inevitable to talk about the war that goes on in Syria. There were reports that Israel helps certain rebel groups to keep Iran as far from the border as possible. But the Syrian government seems to be more and more powerful, and this also means that Iran’s influence in Syria is getting bigger. What is Israel’s point about it? Is there a red line?

Syria is a neighboring country and a country of instability of the last 8+ years. Israel has tried its best to keep itself out of the conflict in Syria, but we have certain strategic interest, security and diplomatic interest in that country.

You may remember that

Israel is offering medical help to the victims of the Syrian civil war,

hundreds, if not thousands of Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals. We do not want to take an active part in the political bickering among the different groups in Syria. We are fully aware of potential consequences of future instability in the country and the disintegration of the sovereign Syrian state, but

Syria cannot be a part of a certain Iranian axis. Israel will take all possible measures, whether they are diplomatic or others, to preempt such a scenario.

We engage in close contacts with different relevant players in the Syrian conflict, to make sure that the strategic balance in the region is not being jeopardized.

Iran is a threat.

The Iranian effort to expand its influence to neighboring countries creating a certain axis to the Mediterranean is an issue of concern.

The Hezbollah also gained strength in the Syrian war, and the terror group reportedly has thousands of missiles aimed at Israel. Is an upcoming war a possibility?

I am not a prophet, and I definitely don’t want to be a prophet of wars. There is a certain military situation, a risk assessment. We discussed Iran, this is also part of the risk assessment. Israel now enjoys a very close strategic cooperation with some of its Arab neighbors. This is an important development in the strategic perspectives of Israel.

Hezbollah is there.

Some people think Hezbollah is a political power, but I don’t know any other political power in the world with such a firepower and missiles power.

The statements made by Sheikh Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, echo the statements coming from Iran and are about shelling Israel, putting Israel on fire and so on.

Israel is a country that takes security very seriously.

We will not let Hezbollah or anyone else undermine normal life in Israel.

And Hezbollah knows it.

Speaking of the cooperation with Arabic countries, Iran is now a common enemy of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It was reported that there had been historic talks on high levels between the countries, Israeli generals gave interviews to Saudi media…

Retired generals…

Do you think that this process can eventually lead to peace treaties as well?

I recommend a historic perspective, as we are approaching landmark dates, April 19th will be the 70th jubilee of Israel’s independence. I don’t ask you to recall 1948, or even 1967 or 1973. I would just say that Israel is a very different country in 2018. A strong country.

Photo: Embassy of Israel

The strength of a country is not measured only by its military power, it is also judged by its economic power, by its place in the international community, by its spiritual and intellectual power. In 2018 Israel is very different than the Israel I was born into.

So, this is part of the change, and the other part is the legitimacy and the acceptance Israel is gaining in its own region.

It is not the invader any more.

It is not a group of colonialists moving to the Holy Land. Israel is a player, a part of the national security in many countries in the region. And this is a very important development that we should not ignore.

The cooperation, and I would not elaborate beyond that, between Israel and neighboring countries is on security matters.

The security of Israel depends on the security and stability in other countries. But we should also say that their security and stability depends on Israel’s cooperation.

So this is a win-win.

This is the development in the last few years. Basically the roots were in the Obama administration’s policy, the Iran agreement, but mostly it is the result of the developments in the region itself. There is an understanding that through cooperation you serve your own purposes much better.

Two, two and a half years ago several experts in Israel told me that there is a ceiling of cooperation because of the Palestinian issue. They also said that it is not the most important one for other Arabic countries, however, it is a symbolic one, so, there can’t be open cooperation between Israel and Arab countries unless it is solved somehow. Do you agree? Do you think that the two-state solution is still viable?

I believe in the two-state solution, I think it is Israel’s interest. I am not sure whether the Palestinians have this idea in their mind that we should develop into two separate political sovereign entities. For Israel the two-state solution is a must. We need to find a political resolution, and I am not sure we are getting close to there. So

I believe in the two-state solution, but I don’t know whether it is feasible in the immediate future.

On the question of a ceiling to Israel’s relationship with the region… In my career I have learnt not to accept any ceilings, any limits set by certain professionals. Shimon Peres used to say that professionals are very good in analyzing the past, they are not very good in foreseeing the future. I can understand the logic of those professionals you quoted, but this was true ten years ago. And we have seen progress.

Now, the question is what we expect. Open borders? Exchange of tourists? This is not what is on the agenda. The basics of bilateral relations are on it: economic, military, strategic cooperation and the cultural, people to people relations.

By my analysis, out of the four elements we are making a huge progress in the first three. Economic cooperation: gas, electricity, water, it is happening, it is infrastructure, it is life. Without that, there is no life. Military cooperation: I should not go into any further details, but you just need to watch the news. Strategic cooperation: we have discussed that Israel is stability for many countries, their stability is Israel’s stability.

The one element that is missing is the people to people relationship.

70 years after the war of independence, with the history of the region, this is something that may develop in the future. If you explore the history of the French-German relationship, and you see the chemistry between the leaders of the two states, the cultural cooperation, then let me remind you that this was not the case till the end of World War II. The world has changed. The world can change between Israelis and Arabs as well.

I don’t believe in ceilings, I believe in interests and in Realpolitik. We live now in an era when the leaders of most Arab countries are realistic, and they see the interest of their countries.

Does the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital influence this process?

No, because it is the capital of Israel. Where else is the capital of Israel? Honestly, all those people, especially Europeans who criticize President Trump and say that he has derailed the peace process or hampered stability in the region, when they go to Israel, where do they visit? Which city do they hold their meetings in? Haifa? Afula? Jerusalem, where else, it is the capital.

For some reasons it is very difficult for some countries to recognize Jerusalem. Okay. But there is no other capital.

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