The man who helped Orban and Netanyahu rise to power

  • By Nick Thorpe
  • BBC News Eastern Europe correspondent

“It’s good to have an enemy,” says George Birnbaum, one of many godfathers of contemporary populism. “Very rarely will you find someone who’s loved by everybody.”

A political advisor for 30 years, he helped Benjamin Netanyahu come to power in a shock victory in Israel in 1996, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban in 2010.

He has purchasers in lots of international locations, and flits these days between New York, Dubai and Harare.

George Birnbaum constructed his fame as one in all “Arthur’s kids” – underneath mentor and late enterprise accomplice Arthur Finkelstein, an excellent mathematician who re-invented the artwork of political campaigning within the US, serving to Richard Nixon to power in 1972, in addition to many different Republican leaders.

“One should…try to polarise the election around that issue that cuts best in your direction, i.e. drugs, crime, race in New York State…,” Finkelstein wrote in a 1970 memo. “When the opponent seizes the polarisation initiative, then you’re in trouble.”

The duo scored a dramatic upset with Benjamin Netanyahu’s first election victory in Israel, which got here simply months after the assassination of incumbent PM Shimon Peres’s predecessor Yitzhak Rabin.

Voters have been electrified by slogans reminiscent of “Peres will divide Jerusalem” – in peace talks with the Palestinians.

“‘Whether or not it would have been a line down the middle of Jerusalem, I don’t think that’s true,” he admits right this moment. “But there were certain areas of the municipality…that were discussed as being given to the Palestinian Authority as part of a peace deal.”

Image supply, George Birnbaum

Image caption,

A youthful George Birnbaum (L) helped orchestrate Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral marketing campaign 27 years in the past

In 2008, they started work for Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose right-wing Fidesz social gathering received a landslide victory in 2010.

Three years later, with extra elections on the horizon, the choice was taken: Viktor Orban wanted a brand new enemy – a man Hungarians might be informed to worry.

After copious opinion surveys, the duo struck on George Soros, the then 85-year-old Hungarian-born US billionaire and philanthropist, as an ideal goal. Viktor Orban has vilified him ever since.

“George Soros was a good target,” George Birnbaum tells me,

“Because enough people in Hungary didn’t like the idea of this billionaire behind the curtain, almost like… the Wizard of Oz, controlling politics and policy.”

Image supply, Getty Images

Image caption,

US billionaire philanthropist George Soros has lately grow to be the main focus of anti-Semitic conspiracies

In 2015, the 12 months George Birnbaum stopped working for Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister found a brand new enemy: Muslim migrants.

And when in September that 12 months George Soros recommended the EU ought to soak up giant numbers of asylum seekers, the Hungarian chief was fast to sign “a Soros plan”.

However implausible, the Jewish philanthropist was accused of a plot to destroy Christian Europe with Muslim immigrants – an concept already gaining floor on the far-right fringes of European politics as “the Great Replacement theory”.

Migrants grew to become the scary “other” within the world-view of many Hungarians, changing Jews or Gypsies. And the demonisation of George Soros radiated from Hungary, across the globe.

“Don’t be afraid to call your enemies by their name. They will never show mercy. Consider for a moment George Soros,” Viktor Orban informed Republicans on the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) within the US state of Texas in 2022.

“I know George Soros very well. He is my opponent. He believes in none of the things that we do,” the Hungarian chief informed his American hosts.

Image caption,

Hungary’s Viktor Orban addressed American conservatives in Texas final 12 months

George Birnbaum’s spouse is Ukrainian, and the couple go to Ukraine typically – as shut mates of Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko.

I level out that Russia’s Vladimir Putin – who despatched troops into Ukraine final 12 months – has stated that liberalism has grow to be out of date. The Russian chief loses no alternative to rail towards the decadence of the liberal West, multiculturalism, immigration, and human rights.

Isn’t that the West which Ukraine is attempting to be a part of? Which George Soros believes in?

The warfare in Ukraine, George Birnbaum says, “has reminded us why freedom matters, and why democracy matters”.

If he met George Soros on the street he would invite him for a drink, he says. “We disagree on a lot of things… But I would like to find out where are the places that we see the same future for Western democracy, for liberal democracy.”

“I have a problem with the extremes on both sides, whether it’s the progressive liberalism of the left or the extreme right-wing isolationist conservatism that exists on the right now.”

As for Viktor Orban, almost a decade has handed, he says, since they final spoke. He admired him after they first met as “a very intellectually smart individual, someone who had a deep knowledge of the economy, and other areas of policy… and that’s rare”.

Now he believes Viktor Orban has been in power too lengthy.

In January 2015, the Hungarian chief recommended that “every migrant is a potential terrorist”. By July 2022, he had informed supporters that “we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race”.

Image caption,

Viktor Orban’s anti-immigrant message has struck chords in Hungary – which noticed an inflow of migrants and refugees in 2015

George Birnbaum disagrees strongly with each statements.

His critics argue he foments polarisation in politics – however what’s the antidote to this?

“The best kind of leaders are those who remind us of common goals, and not of our differences. It’s not about ideology, it’s about making sure that people’s hopes and dreams are realised,” he says.

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