Israel condemns 'anti-Semitic anti-Soros ads' in Hungary, then changes its mind
Israel's foreign ministry has backed a series of adverts in Hungary denouncing US billionaire George Soros just hours after its ambassador condemned the billboard campaign as anti-Semitic.
Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, has repeatedly been singled out by Hungary's right-wing government this year, particularly over his support for more open immigration.
The nationwide poster campaign by the government shows a large picture of Soros laughing alongside the text: "Let's not allow Soros to have the last laugh", in reference to his positions on migration.
Israel's ambassador to Hungary on Saturday issued a statement denouncing the campaign, saying it "evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear", a reference to Hungary's role in deporting 500,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
Many of the posters have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, including the words "stinking Jew".
Jewish groups in Hungary and Human Rights Watch, an organization partly funded by Soros, have also condemned the campaign, saying it "evokes memories of the Nazi posters during the Second World War".
"These poisonous messages harm the whole of Hungary," said Andras Heisler, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), in a letter to Prime Minister Viktor Orban published on the group's website Thursday.
"We ask you and your government to take action to stop the campaign immediately and remove the posters from our streets and squares," he said.
Yet in a highly unusual diplomatic move, Israel's foreign ministry released a "clarification" just hours after the ambassador's comments, saying Soros was a legitimate target of criticism.
"In no way was the statement (by the ambassador) meant to delegitimise criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel's democratically elected governments," said foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.
Soros funds organisations "that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself", he added, referring to Human Rights Watch.
Netanyahu visit to Hungary
The surprising statement from Israel's foreign ministry comes ahead of a visit to Budapest on July 18 by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the first of its kind by an Israeli premier.
Strong ties between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Netanyahu have raised concerns in the European Union, where Orban is seen as a highly illiberal far-right leader who has undercut EU efforts to tackle the refugee crisis.
Hungary has held discussions with Israel about purchasing security fences to keep migrants out, while Israel has sought better ties with countries that it hopes will take its side in any EU discussions.
Israel and Hungary had a brief dispute last month after Orban called Hungary’s World War Two leader Miklos Horthy an "exceptional statesman."
Horty was a staunch ally of Hitler who approved anti-Jewish legislation in the 1920s and 1930s, and cooperated with Nazi Germany in deporting Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
Israel expressed alarm but then accepted Hungary's explanation that Orban had zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.
Agencies contributed to this report.