The unique opportunity of an Israeli/American political scientist, even of the retired kind, is to observe two heads of government who seem to be on the edge or beyond what is customary or possible.
Barely a week into his presidency, we read of efforts to impeach Donald Trump, or to declare him unfit under provisions of the 25th Amendment. .
And years into his career at the upper reaches or the very top of Israel's government, there are just as many calling for or predicting the end of Bibi's reign.
It's hard to tell where politics, law, serious advocacy, rent-a-crowd protesters, and nuttiness are in the noise. And if the term nuttiness may apply to Donald and Bibi along with some of those defending them or calling for their ouster.
In Donald's case, it's hard to rank the unconventional nature of various actions with respect to the President of Mexico and the sweeping ban on entrance to the United States. Both actions may seem all right to a man who grew up in the Wild West marginal criminality associated with real estate dealing, but both cause wonder for those concerned about the complex relations between governments, especially those that share borders, as well as the US standing in a global world replete with expectations about mutual responsibility plus the norms of give and take.
Donald's travel ban has already begun to crumble under the weight of US courts and foreign governments important enough to demand exclusion for their citizens. British and Israeli officials seem to have accomplished that. Among Israeli citizens are thousands born in Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, including numerous friends and some relatives, and one former Chief of the IDF General Staff and Defense Minister. Most came to Israel decades ago as young refugees fleeing persecution.
Among the madness associated with Trump's claim to have protected the US are promises of greater vetting of those seeking entry. If he's serious, that'll demand the hiring and training of thousands of multi-lingual individuals capable of doing the vetting. Even that may not be adequate, insofar as they'll be dependent on intelligence sources in forbidden countries. How else to check suspicions about individuals or their assertions of innocence?
The implementation of Donald's tweets and executive orders depend on the workings of public administration. There are thousands of clerks who may act as they choose in carrying out what they perceive as their instructions.
Donald may think that the suspicions of a border guard are enough to keep out those who might be dangerous, but we can expect a weightier response from federal courts. There'll also be clogs in the judicial pipeline, with no shortage of attorneys willing to do pro bono for a good cause.
Commentators are talking about impeachment or invoking the provisions of the 25th Amendment to remove Donald on account of being unfit for his office.
Impeachment is relatively straight forward, but has proved politically impossible in the two instances that it was invoked against the Chief Executive. The 25th Amendment allows a President to remove himself temporarily, and offers complex ways for others to remove a chief executive "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." The effort would array cadres of individuals claiming medical, legal, and political expertise squabbling over whether Donald is just what the country needs or unfit to continue in office..
Bibi's problems are different from Donald's, but they overlap at several points. His plight is not the ignorance or bizarre creativity of a newcomer to government, but the accumulation of serious claims about wrong doing over a long career. Prominent among his problems are
- Gifts to him and his family exceeding $150,000 in value from one individual, plus others from additional donors, not all of them yet specified
- Involvement in negotiations with a newspaper publisher to improve his treatment of Bibi in exchange for Bibi's limiting the circulation of a competing newspaper. Among the issues with this allegation is whether Bibi was the one who offered, was offered, or who both offered and was offered a bribe.
- Finagling with the procedures involved in acquiring military equipment costing in excess of $100 million, partly for the sake of a family relative involved in the negotiations and likely to profit from the outcome
- People claiming to speak for the police have mentioned a fourth major investigation under way or about to begun, but so far no details
One might quarrel about the capacity of any one of these charges to unseat a Prime Minister, but their accumulation may amount to enough sleaze for the task.
Bibi has been adding to his plight by what seem acts of desperation, calculated to rescue his career from the looming possibility of criminal indictments, and a recent poll showing that 51 percent think he should leave political life, against 36 percent supporting his continuation in office...
He twittered his support for Donald Trump's idea of a wall against Mexico, thereby causing a flurry of protest and demand for apology from the Mexican Foreign Office, backed up by nervous Jews concerned about their status in Mexico.
He has begun to promote a right-wing legislative proposal enabling the taking of West Bank land against the warning of the Attorney General that he could not defend a court action against the proposal, and against Bibi's own prior reservations about the proposal.
Likud means unity, and so far the leading members of Netanyahu's party are not showing overt signs of rebellion.
There's also a lack of unity among a cluster of parties and personalities who might take the reigns from him. The Labor Party, under its current guise of Zionist Union, is going through one of its classic free-for-alls, with several aspirants positioning themselves against the incumbent party leader. There are also a number of as yet unaffiliated individuals along with parties they might work with (Lapid's, Lieberman's, Kahlon's plus Labor), but the weight of them all might not be enough to take charge.
The ultra-Orthodox parties and Jewish Home may have the balance of power in the political brawl taking shape, and Israelis running under the claim of an enlightened alternative to Bibi may be reluctant to spoil their image by aligning with them.
The Arab parties may be dreaming of exercising some weight in this commotion, but that would be a historical first challenging even Trump's claim of being original.
As indicated at the beginning, this is a fascinating time for a political scientist with a foot in both Israel and the US. But if I've learned anything during a half century in the profession and almost as long in each country, it is that prediction would go beyond my training, skills, and good sense, and that my preferences aren't likely to be influential. We should be wary about expressing judgement, except when there is a clear violation of what seems wise or possible. There's always another point of view. Not all of them are clearly nutty.
It's best to focus on understanding what's happening, and letting the political and legal processes of democracy sort out the costs and benefits of numerous scenarios.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem