Analysis: Netanyahu's Trumpian politics

"Unlike Trump, Netanyahu is a master politician. So what is he up to? Netanyahu has clearly noted that Trump’s tactics are working. Those who attack Trump seem not to survive."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion airport on May 23, 2017 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion airport on May 23, 2017
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
(TNS) - US President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be in an enviable position. His approval rating is at record lows. The indictments stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation have obvious implications for Trump’s presidency. And that’s just the latest piece of sobering news for an administration hobbled by incompetence from the start.
So it’s a bit surprising that Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a savvy political survivor who is poised to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister, seems to be consciously conducting himself in ways that are strikingly similar to Trump.
Netanyahu, who also is under investigation for a variety of suspected infractions, has lashed out at Israel’s press and its reporting on the scandals in distinctly Trump-like fashion. He recently claimed that Israel’s political left and the country’s ruggedly independent press have become one and the same, and that their shared objective is “an obsessive, unprecedented witch-hunt against me and my family, seeking to overthrow the government.” As in the US, members of the judiciary have chastised the prime minister.
“Making the press into the enemy of the nation is anti-democratic,” warned Dalia Dorner, a retired associate justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.
Both men have been accused of overreaching in seeking to protect themselves. Just as Trump has been accused of seeking to block Mueller’s work, Netanyahu has sought to advance a bill that would prohibit most investigations of a standing prime minister. So crass was the attempt to place the leader above the law that even Netanyahu’s fairly dependable coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, announced that it would not support the bill, which appears to have died, at least for now.
Then there is the cozying up to far-right leaders, both domestic and foreign.
Asked in August 2015 if he would repudiate former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Trump replied, “Sure, I would do that, if it made you feel better.” Trump has been famously complimentary of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “I will tell you that I think in terms of leadership, he is getting an ‘A,’” then-candidate Trump said in September 2015. Of the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, who has boasted of having shot and killed drug dealers on the streets of Manilla, Trump said he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
Netanyahu has played with the same fire. He was criticized for failing to call out Hungary’s premier, Viktor Orban, for his party’s role in fomenting antisemitic sentiment there. But even more astounding was his noticeable silence on the Nazi march in August in Charlottesville, Va. Never one to fear meddling in internal American elections (see his support of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney) or policy (the Iran deal), Netanyahu presumably said nothing so as not to appear critical of Trump’s equivocation.
There are strange familial similarities, as well. Donald Trump Jr. made news with his flailing attack on talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, and did more serious damage when his contact with Russians, which deepened suspicions of his father, was revealed. Israel’s prime minister has had to weather much of the same. No paragon of subtlety, Yair Netanyahu, Benjamin’s son, drew ire for claiming that leftists were more dangerous than neo-Nazis, and then — as if to mock his own position — was chastised for posting an antisemitic meme on social media.
Not surprisingly, members of both leaders’ parties have had enough. Republican senators Jeff Flake and John McCain have issued blistering critiques of President Trump. In Israel, President Reuven Rivlin, a fellow Likud politician, leveled an attack on Netanyahu’s treatment of Israeli democracy at the start of the Knesset’s new session in October.
Some of these similarities are coincidental, while others result from both men being positioned toward the right on the political spectrum. But not all of this can be easily explained away. Other than consciously seeking to sound like Trump, how does one explain Netanyahu’s adoption of the term “fake news,” now entirely associated with the president’s utter disdain for the institutions that lie at the heart of democratic society?
Unlike Trump, Netanyahu is a master politician. So what is he up to? Netanyahu has clearly noted that Trump’s tactics are working. Those who attack Trump seem not to survive, while Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan have been careful not to cross the blatant anti-Trump line. Trump’s unpredictability is also an enormous challenge for Netanyahu as he seeks to protect Israel in a turbulent region that the president clearly does not understand. It seems that the prime minister has opted for fawning as a protection against any future dust-up with the American president.
It is clever, and in the short run, it may work for Israel. But the dangers of this strategy are far-reaching. Trump’s attacks on the press, the judiciary and even America’s culture of civility will do damage, but that can be undone by the leaders who will follow. Israel’s democracy, however, is not two-and-a-half centuries old; it is less than 70. What the US can weather, Israel may not be able to reverse.
Ironically, an Israeli prime minister seeking to protect Israel by mimicking the American president may be doing more damage to his own country than even he comprehends.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.” Readers may email him at [email protected]
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