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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday that his country stood firmly against anti-Semitism today after the "crime" of failing to protect its Jewish citizens during World War Two.

Netanyahu, whose visit to Budapest has been overshadowed by Orban's flirtation with the radical right that has unnerved Hungarian Jews, responded by praising Hungary as a key ally of Israel as it faces growing hostility around the world.

Netanyahu's two-day trip comes less than a month after Orban praised Hungary's interwar leader Miklos Horthy, a Hitler ally, and used an image of Jewish U.S. financier George Soros in an anti-immigration billboard campaign.

"It is the duty of every Hungarian government to defend its citizens whatever their heritage. During World War Two Hungary did not honour this moral and political obligation," Orban told a joint news conference with Netanyahu, adopting a markedly different tone to his usually nationalist rhetoric.

"That is a crime, because we chose collaboration with the Nazis over the defence of the Jewish community. That can never happen again. The Hungarian government will defend all of its citizens in the future."

Orban has repeatedly pledged zero tolerance of anti-Semitism but some of his comments have rattled Hungarian Jews, including his praise for Horthy, who only suspended deportations of Jews after the Nazis had shipped half a million to the gas chambers.

"IMPORTANT WORDS"

"(Orban) reassured me in unequivocal terms (over the anti-Semitic concerns)," Netanyahu told the news conference. "I appreciate that. These are important words."

He also thanked Orban for "standing up for Israel in international forums."

"There is a new anti-Semitism expressed in anti-Zionism," Netanyahu said. "That is delegitimising the one and only Jewish state. In many ways Hungary is at the forefront of the states that are opposed to this anti-Jewish policy and I welcome it and express the appreciation of my government."

Netanyahu's visit is the first to Hungary by a serving Israeli prime minister since the fall of communism. He will also meet the Polish, Czech and Slovak leaders in Budapest on Wednesday.

Israel has sought better bilateral ties with countries that have a vote in forums such as the European Union or the United Nations, who it hopes will help defend its interests when Israel is criticised.

Poland has just been elected to the U.N. Security Council as a non-permanent member for the next two years.

Orban and Netanyahu have found common cause on the issue of Hungarian-born Soros and his support for non-governmental organisations that have criticised their governments' policies.

Earlier this month the Israeli foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing Soros in an apparent attempt to align Israel with Hungary ahead of the Netanyahu trip.

The warm ties between Netanyahu and Orban have raised eyebrows in the European Union, where the Hungarian leader is regarded as an illiberal maverick. His party has curtailed press freedom and stymied EU efforts to tackle the migrant crisis.

On Tuesday Orban and Netanyahu also discussed mass immigration into Europe as well as other issues.

Defending his refusal to accept an EU quota of migrants, Orban said: "Hungary does not want a mixed population, it does not want to change its current ethnic makeup, it will not defer to any external pressure."

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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Reuters