US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Forum in Des Moines, Iowa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We Israelis shouldn’t be too surprised by the remarkable rise of Donald Trump. After all, our own prime minister shares certain similarities with the outspoken, self-promoting tycoon striking fear in the heart of the Republican establishment and causing amazement around the world.
Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that Benjamin Netanyahu has provided the prototype for Trump’s candidacy for there are clear differences between the two men – Trump is paying for his own campaign, for example, while Netanyahu’s reluctance to put his hand in his pocket even to pay for his own pistachio ice-cream is legendary – but nevertheless one can draw parallels between the two.
Trump is running a racist, divisive campaign, labelling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and refusing to disavow the endorsement of Klu Klux Klan’s David Duke. As we know from Netanyahu’s election campaign book – “the Arabs are rushing to vote in their hordes,” “the Left have forgotten what it means to be Jewish” – sowing the seeds of racism and division unfortunately works.
Both men have been married three times, are not known for their religious piety or devotion and yet have nevertheless captured the heart of America’s evangelical Christian community. In Israel, Netanyahu, back in 1999 when he was first elected prime minister, even managed to sway the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) vote despite his very public admission of adultery at the beginning of the campaign.
This ability to win over the faithful despite living lives diametrically opposed to the values the faith communities represent is the mark of the supreme showman. Decent people, like Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, who are truly committed to working for a better society but who lack the arrogant showmanship of a Trump or a Netanyahu will always find it hard to outmaneuver these people at the polls.
Showmen like Trump and Netanyahu have such an innate belief in their own ability and rightness that even when they lie, they either often believe they are telling the truth or simply shrug off the lie as if it was no concern and move on to the next topic.
At last week’s televised Republican Party debate, Fox News (yes even Fox News is finding the Trump candidacy and its success hard to believe!) screened a montage showing Trump in different interviews directly contradicting himself over whether American involvement in Afghanistan was a mistake, US policy toward Syrian refugees, and whether George W. Bush lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iran. None of this mattered: Trumped sailed through the broadsides unscathed.
Our own prime minister has his own problems with the truth, from the harmless false memories, such as walking the streets of Jerusalem with his mother and seeing British soldiers on patrol (which given that Netanyahu was born in 1949, a year after the British had left, is rather improbable) to more serious and damaging falsehoods, such as entering the realm of Holocaust denial.
It is hard to think of any other Israeli leader who could get away with the claim that it was not Hitler who was responsible for the extermination of European Jewry but rather Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini.
According to Netanyahu’s shameful distortion of history, Hitler at the time only “wanted to expel the Jews” and it was Husseini who prompted the idea of the crematoria.
And Netanyahu’s twisting of the truth extends to our relationship with modern- day Germany, our staunchest European ally. After meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last month, Netanyahu told reporters on his return that the chancellor had reformed her position on the importance of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians and that her words represented “a more realistic approach to the situation in our region and between us and the Palestinians.”
Actually, the chancellor said nothing of the sort, telling a joint press conference immediately after the two leaders’ meeting that “advancing the peace process based on the two-state solution is important. We believe that progress towards coexistence, based on the two-state solution, is possible.”
In an understatement more British than German, officials in Berlin were said to be “surprised” by what Netanyahu later told Israeli reporters.
The good news for Americans, however, is that even if Trump manages what once was seen as the impossible (as Netanyahu did when he defeated Shimon Peres in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination in 1995) and becomes the next US president, his time in office will be limited to a maximum of eight years should he win a second term as well. Here in Israel, we’ve been stuck with Netanyahu for a decade, with no signs of him being ready to leave the stage.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.