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J.L. Granatstein: The EU’s Viktor Orban problem

Commentary

In November 1956, Moscow sent tanks into Hungary to crush a popular rebellion that had taken control of the eastern European nation. The new government under Imre Nagy had declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, to hold free elections, and to become a neutral state. But Hungary’s brief freedom died under Soviet tank tracks with 2,500 dead, 20,000 wounded, and some 250,000 fleeing to the West (many of whom ended up in Canada). Nagy was duly executed.

Seven decades later, many of the ten million Hungarians seem to have forgotten these events, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban’s no communist, however—he is a self-proclaimed “illiberal Christian democrat,” though his opponents doubt his claims to be any type of democrat. His government has gradually seized control of much of the nation’s media and labelled press critics as purveyors of fake news. He has tweaked the constitution and legislative regulations to strengthen his grasp, and he spouts anti-immigrant rhetoric while denouncing racial and cultural integration. This has given Orban’s party a strong majority government.

The European Union, fearing Hungary’s turn to autocracy, has held back funds desperately needed by Budapest’s struggling economy. Orban’s response has been to disrupt the EU’s procedures and plans. Ukraine needs more financial aid to fend off Russia’s invasion? Hungary’s objections are enough to block this. And besides, Orban says, Russia’s attack on Kyiv is not war. The numbers of casualties suffered by the combatants, of course, do suggest that it’s much more than a mere barroom fight.

Ukraine wants to be in the EU. Not so fast, Orban says, and certainly not before Kyiv gives Hungarian speakers in Ukraine back their language rights. In one recent openly revanchist speech Orban implicitly called for territorial adjustments that would give Hungary back the territory it lost after the First World War, something that must worry not only Ukraine but also Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia. The EU’s rules require unanimity, and Hungary can hold up anything—at least until Brussels caves in and releases the funds it has held back because of Orban’s “illiberal” democratic policies.

It’s the same with NATO. In his first term, Orban took Hungary into NATO in 1999, but now that Sweden wants to join, Hungary is stalling, claiming loudly that Sweden has been calling Orban an autocrat who is corrupting the rule of law. Orban labels these “blatant lies.” Sweden is not threatened, Hungary says, so why does it need to be in NATO? The Swedes, like the Finns, historically neutral, may be the best judges of whether or not they feel threatened by President Vladimir Putin’s fascistic regime. And it may be that Orban (who has bought fighter jets from Saab) only wants Stockholm to bow, scrape, and kiss his ring.

Flying in the face of history and memory, Orban’s Hungary, Russia’s only real ally in Western Europe, now wants closer relations with Moscow, and he and Putin happily pose for photographs. Moreover, playing its role as Moscow’s trojan horse, Budapest says it supports China’s peace plan for Ukraine, one that calls for an end to Western sanctions and a ceasefire that would effectively give Moscow permanent control of the eastern provinces it presently occupies. How Hungary can be in the EU and in NATO while supporting the policies it does and blocking those it dislikes boggles the mind.

That is the real question. Governments change and so do policies, and neither the EU nor NATO wants to throw Budapest under the bus, something that would only benefit Moscow (and do nothing to improve the lives of Hungarians). But there comes a point when obstruction becomes more than a delaying tactic and turns into a deliberate attempt to sabotage the will of the vast majority.

The time has come for President Joe Biden’s administration to talk tough to Budapest. That might work. But with his anti-immigration policy, his attacks on the media, and his pro-Putin attitude, Orban has many friends in any putative Trump administration. He might be willing to accept temporary pain for long-term gain until the coming American elections in November determine who will rule in the U.S. The one certainty is that neither the EU nor NATO should put up with Orban and his illiberal democracy much longer.

Joanna Baron: Accusing Israel of genocide is a gross distortion of the facts

Commentary

The point of accusing a Jew of stealing, so the saying goes, is for the pleasure of observing him turning out his pockets to prove the allegation false. So it goes with allegations that Israel is committing genocide in its war against Hamas in Gaza, which have been brought into sharp focus by South Africa’s application against Israel under the Genocide Convention in the International Court of Justice. Israel has pledged to accept the court’s jurisdiction and defend against the allegations, reportedly drawing on eminent retired justice (and Holocaust survivor) Aharon Barak as an ad hoc judge on the International Court of Justice’s Panel.

Genocide is deemed the “crime of all crimes.” Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew and jurist, lobbied for genocide to be named a crime under international law after observing Winston Churchill’s speech describing Nazi atrocities against the Jews (and Poles, Roma, disabled, Russians, and more) as a “crime without a name.”

The definition of genocide is not contested. It is articulated in Article II of the Convention. The crucial aspect of genocide, as the crime of all crimes, is the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Only if that intention is established is the legal test for genocide met in respect of the specified acts, such as killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a national or ethnic group. These acts must serve the intention or the purpose of destroying a specified group.

To be clear, nobody with eyes can deny that a horrifying humanitarian catastrophe is happening in Gaza. This is substantially due to the fact that Israel is fighting an enemy which launches rockets from apartment balconies, holds hostages in hospitals, and establishes command centres out of UN schools. It is Hamas, not Israel, that insists things be so; if the war could be fought along conventional battle lines away from a single civilian, Israel would gladly do so. Hamas, being the weaker actor, insists on the dirtiest possible mode of combat to capitalize on Israel’s moral instinct to minimize civilian loss.

On the question of intent, South Africa’s legal submissions bear the measure of a feeble undergraduate political science paper. The claim highlights statements made by Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoav Gallant, and Isaac Herzog. Some of the statements cited are simply false. For example, the claim quotes one “Danny Neumann,” a “former Israeli Knesset member,” in calling for the complete destruction of Gaza. No such former member exists; the claim appears to originate from a website called the Middle East Eye. (Danny Neumann appears to be a former footballer). 

The other statements are plucked out of context in ways that are so immediate and clear that it is difficult to conclude the claim is anything other than intentionally misleading. The claim cites Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech on October 8th that “We will operate forcefully everywhere.” The full statement, though, makes clear that the objective is against Hamas, and in the very same sentence there is a plea for Gazans to flee from places where Hamas is known to operate: “All of the places which Hamas is deployed, hiding and operating in, that wicked city, we will turn them into rubble. I say to the residents of Gaza: leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere.”

Similarly, President Isaac Herzog’s statement that “It’s an entire nation that’s responsible” refers to the vile antisemitism on display on October 7th when crowds cheered at the bodies of dead civilian women paraded through the streets of Gaza. But at the very same press conference, Herzog explicitly rejected the proposition that Gaza’s civilians are legitimate targets while highlighting the fact that Hamas is known to shoot missiles out of schools, mosques, and even private homes and that this cannot immunize them from military response.

Finally, the claim cites defence minister Yoav Gallant’s October 9th comment that “We are fighting human animals, and acting accordingly.” It’s clear that this was in reference to Hamas, not the Palestinian population. Gallant has tweeted more than 72 times since clarifying this.

The conduct of the IDF shows no nexus with an intent to target Palestinian civilians. The IDF has made over 50,000 phone calls and issued over 14 million text messages and 12 million voice messages warning civilians to leave specified areas. Where possible, they monitor areas to confirm civilians have left before beginning air strikes. They have distributed detailed maps with evacuation routes to relative safety. They have facilitated hundreds of truckloads of humanitarian aid daily. As for Hamas, despite dragging the Gazan population into certain war with Israel on October 7th, they have proudly boasted about their refusal to build a single bomb shelter with the millions of dollars in international aid they receive, asserting this is the “UN’s job.”

The term genocide became a crime against humanity in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust, the most meticulously pre-meditated and evil crime in history. Invoking the crime of genocide against the people whose horrifying fate led the international community to coin the term bears a particularly charged valence. To be sure, not all genocides are as straightforward or explicitly intentional as the Holocaust: the Nazis’ obsession with exterminating Jewry, even at the expense of their own military objectives, has been called “redemptive antisemitism” and, one hopes, remains a high water mark of human cruelty and depravity.

Nonetheless, shoehorning the war in Gaza—a war Israel did not want, did not initiate, and yet must fight for its own existential survival—into the same category as the biggest crime in history constitutes a sort of Holocaust denial via conceptual dilution. It also is the most malicious gaslighting against Jewish people I can imagine.

Why is this happening in 2024? Why the double standard for Israel? For example, one can readily find videos of Islamic genocidaires literally whipping Masalit tribe members in Darfur as they lead them to their slaughter, while news of Pakistan forcibly displacing over 350,000 Afghan refugees came and went with hardly a ripple compared to the worldwide protests and antisemitic attacks in the wake of Israel’s response in Gaza. Then there is the Chinese oppression of the Muslim Uyghurs, which continues apace absent, again, a fraction of the outrage directed toward Israel. In the meantime, the UN General Assembly could not manage to pass a single resolution condemning the October 7th massacre. Let’s not allow the UN’s pathological obsession with the Jewish state to turn its judicial body into a moral horror show.