On 19 July, the prime ministers of the Visegrad Group (V4) met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Budapest. The meeting confirmed the potential for cooperation between the countries, but the wider perception of it may have been affected by sharp comments Netanyahu made about the EU at a closed-door meeting of the prime ministers that became public.
The Budapest summit was the first meeting of heads of government of the Visegrad Group and Israel. During the summit, bilateral meetings between the prime ministers were also held. Netanyahu's stay in Budapest was the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to Hungary since the fall of communism. Hungary, which began its V4 presidency this July, is actively using the V4+ format to meet with non-European countries. For example, at the beginning of July, the V4 prime ministers met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Through the meetings with the Egyptian president and Israeli PM, the V4 aims to strengthen its argument in the debate on the EU mass-migration crisis and in the fight against terrorism that cooperation with Middle Eastern countries is vital.
The V4—Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—hold diverse policies towards Israel. The Czech parliament made a far-reaching political gesture in the form of a resolution in May this year that called on the government to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Parliaments in the other V4 countries have not issued a similar call. Despite differences in policy, the V4 countries, in addition to EU-wide actions, have as a goal to respond in unison, for example, in 2014, when the V4 issued a statement calling on both Hamas and Israel to cease military operations in the Gaza Strip. The Visegrad Group is in favour of a two-state solution within the Middle East peace process, as reflected in both the V4–Egypt declaration of 4 July and the V4–Israel declaration of 19 July.
Summit participants stressed the need for synergy in security and innovation. They announced the creation of working groups on fighting terrorism and support for technological cooperation. The groups could be co-financed by the International Visegrad Fund. Security collaboration will include cybersecurity, counter terrorism, and border protection. On innovation, the states declared they would strengthen cooperation in the high-tech sector, including digitisation and startups, and in science. The V4 countries also pledged to work towards improving the EU–Israel relationship, specifically by updating the 2000 EU Association Agreement with Israel. The next V4–Israel meeting at the level of heads of government was announced as next year in Israel.
Here, especially the energy sector. In the coming years, Israel will begin to extract natural gas from fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. The V4 states are relatively nearby and interested in diversifying their supply sources, making them natural recipients of Israeli natural gas, including LNG. Also, the increasing expenditures on defence among the V4 has created a more attractive market for the Israeli arms industry, proved by the Czech Republic’s decision in 2016 to purchase Israeli-made airspace monitoring radars. The experience of the dialogue with Israel may encourage the V4 to initiate similar talks with other Middle Eastern partners or spark Israel’s interest in future projects within the Three Seas Initiative, which encompasses the V4.
During the summit, some of the discussion from a closed-door prime ministers’ meeting were overheard. In a recording of the comments made public, Prime Minister Netanyahu sharply criticised the EU and described the Union’s position toward Israel as overly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also suggested that the V4 countries should work to change this policy in the EU forum. Netanyahu’s attitude demonstrates that Israel is attempting to use the V4 instrumentally and create divisions between the V4 states and the rest of the EU. The Visegrad countries could use this opportunity to highlight the European Union’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.