Hungary uses Israeli lobbying firm to mend fences with United States

The Orbán government had high hopes that the election of Donald Trump as president would lead to improved bilateral relations between Hungary and the United States–relations that had very much deteriorated since 2010, after Fidesz took power. The Orbán government had been paying Washington lobbyist Connie Mack around $112,000 per month, primarily to secure a much coveted Oval Office visit with President Trump for Mr. Orbán, but to no avail. The Átlátszó and Index news site reported that the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been extremely disappointed with Mr. Mack’s performance to date and after signing a 1.4 billion forint contract with him, the Hungarian government decided to end this agreement.

Yet Hungary remains intent on securing an official visit for Mr. Orbán and an Oval Office meeting with the president. Mr. Orbán was the only sitting EU head of government to endorse Mr. Trump prior to his election in 2016, yet it would appear that the American president is not jumping on the opportunity to reward Hungary’s leader for his support. And the State Department has expressed its displeasure with the Hungarian government over its assault against Central European University and the free press. In fact, as our readers may know, the State Department took the unusual step of announcing a grant to fund the restoration of press freedom in rural Hungary. Mr. Trump, however, is essentially ignoring Mr. Orbán, despite the prime minister’s early loyalty to his campaign.

Viktor Orbán to Mr. Trump’s left.

Átlátszó learned that the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has hired a lobbying firm called BSI Public Affairs Inc., headed by Israeli lobbyists Tzvika Brot and Ariel Sender. Both men had worked for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign and are also in close contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the last six months, the Hungarian government has paid this firm at least $290,000 (73 million forints) for their services, which includes consulting for the Hungarian embassy in Washington DC, and the same for the consulates in Chicago and Los Angeles. Beyond the main contract, BSI would have also taken on supplementary projects, for additional payment.

The contract with BSI was to have expired at the end of 2017, with an option to renew. Journalists from Átlátszó asked the Ministry if such a renewal had, in fact, taken place, but Ministry officials are not offering any response. BSI appears to be working through a lobbying firm, which only recently registered as a foreign agent in the US, called Sanitas International. BSI, however, has never itself registered as a foreign agent and some suggest that this may pose legal problems.

It would appear that Christoper Harvin of Sanitas International has offered consulting services to the Hungarian ambassador, the deputy head of mission and to communications staff at the embassy in Washington, charging the Hungarians $15,000 this past January for these services.

Although President Trump has been in office for the past 15 months and despite the efforts on the part of the Orbán government, no official visit is on the horizon for Mr. Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister was last in the Oval Office on 1 May 2001 during his firm term in office. After another eight years in power since 2010, finally securing a visit would be seen as an important boost for Budapest.

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