Washington Watch: Trumpenyahu

Elections poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with US President Donald Trump (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Elections poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with US President Donald Trump
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker may have impressed his audience of one at the White House with his feisty sparring with the House Judiciary Committee last week, but his humiliating performance marked a turning point in US President Donald Trump’s presidency.
After two years of obsequious House Republican leaders shunning their constitutional oversight responsibility, it was time to get serious. And the man to start it off was a no-nonsense yeshiva boy from Brooklyn, chairman Jerrold Nadler.
The new Democratic majority intends to take its job as part of a coequal branch of government, and that has Trump rightfully worried.
Republican chairmen Bob Goodlatte at Judiciary and Devin Nunes of the House Intelligence Committee have been replaced by Democrats Nadler and Adam Schiff. And Speaker Paul Ryan’s gavel is now in the hands of Nancy Pelosi, who humiliated Trump with her refusal to buckle when he imposed a partial government shutdown.
Whitaker should be gone in a few days, to be replaced by William Barr, who told senators in his confirmation hearings that he would not impede Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
As Mueller breathes down Trump’s neck, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also feels a criminal investigation closing in on him that threatens to end his public career in disgrace, if not worse.
Watching the prosecutors bear down, we are reminded of the many ways in which this president and prime minister are alike.
Of course, there are also some important differences, including intelligence, government experience, military service, political skills and ability to express himself in the English language. In every measure, Netanyahu far exceeds Donald Trump.
Netanyahu is rightfully worried that Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw from Syria will strengthen Iranian influence in that country and further endanger Israel. To Trump, the countries of Africa are “shitholes,” but to Netanyahu they are potential friends who must be cultivated.
But, it is their similarities which are intriguing and troubling.
Each has blown up in anger against his hand-picked attorney-general and accused him of betrayal. Trump finally fired Jeff Sessions after a year-long campaign of vilification.
Netanyahu can’t get rid of Avichai Mandelblit as easily. He called a snap election in part hoping to win a record fifth term before the attorney-general decides to indict him on multiple pending charges of bribery, breach of trust and corruption. The prime minister also wants to delay Trump’s announcement of his Middle East peace “deal of the century,” which Netanyahu’s right-wing base expects him to emphatically reject.
With Israeli elections just over six weeks away, Netanyahu has giant posters featuring him and Trump to remind Israeli voters how close they are. Israel is one of the few countries where Trump is actually popular, thanks to his decisions to break the Iranian nuclear deal, recognize Jerusalem as the nation’s capital and move the US embassy there.
Those posters send a very different message to most American Jews, who dislike and distrust Trump. They are unhappy with Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump and with his government leading Israel to the far Right, away from peace negotiations and into a neo-theocratic state.
Both leaders wage perennial wars with the media, display an autocratic bent, show disdain for racial minorities, kowtow to religious extremists, want to bar Muslim immigrants, are surrounded with the stench of corruption and have strained relations with their nation’s important democratic allies. Both even have nasty eldest sons who tweet attacks on their fathers’ critics with verbal brutality.
They share a disdain for Barack Obama and look for ways to undermine and humiliate him.
Neither won a majority of the popular vote, but each thinks he has an unfettered mandate to rule.
Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev said that the two are in a tough race for coveted title of the world’s top whiner as well as best delusional paranoid.
Both savor the good life; one can afford it and the other could go to jail if convicted of trading favors for $50 Cohiba Siglo V cigars and $200 bottles of Dom Perignon pink champagne.
None of this is as troubling as Netanyahu’s instrumental role in helping Republicans turn bipartisan support for Israel into a hyper-partisan political issue.
Netanyahu has built a close relationship with Congressional Republicans going back 35 years to his time at the Israeli Embassy here. He once told an interviewer “I speak Republican.” And he did a lot of that.
As prime minister, he has feuded with Democratic administrations that he felt pressed peace negotiations while tightly embracing the opposition. He has pledged to voters there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch and that he intends to build more settlements.
The Trump administration is reportedly ready to unveil its peace plan, but not until after the Israeli election, at Netanyahu’s urging. Meanwhile, the prime minister is telling voters that it will be a waste of time.
That’s what his nationalist-religious base wants to hear, and he expects Trump will do nothing to harm his reelection chances (and Trump no doubt expects the Israeli leader to return the favor in 2020).
Netanyahu is not worried that his response to the Trump plan will bring him into conflict with his friend in the White House. That’s because he is smarter than the competition. He won’t reject it outright, to avoid offending Trump, while banking on the Palestinians to do that for him.
On Capitol Hill, the volume if not the quantity of criticism of Israel is growing, thanks in part to Netanyahu’s increasingly repressive policies and some outspoken new progressive members of Congress, particularly two Muslim women, Freshman Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
It exploded Sunday when Omar said that American political support for Israel is bought by AIPAC and Jewish money. “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” she tweeted.
Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership moved quickly to condemn Omar’s “offensive” use of “antisemitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters” and called on her to “immediately apologize.” Which she did, as she’s done before; it remains to be seen how long that will last.
Look for Trump, who has a history of racism and Islamophobia, to try to capitalize on Omar’s comments and send his Twitter account into overdrive as he tries to paint all Democrats as antisemites. A big question is will his friend Bibi jump in with him?