Netanyahu’s Trump-like behavior may have an end date - analysis

Both rail against the media on a regular basis. Both have been investigated and essentially put on trial.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with US President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords. September 15, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands with US President Donald Trump after signing the Abraham Accords. September 15, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
In March 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won his third election in six years. Then-president of the US Barack Obama took two days to make the traditional congratulatory call; aside from the tense relationship between the two leaders, the reason was clear.
On Election Day in Israel, Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page warning that “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves.”
The day after Obama called Netanyahu, he spoke out against the prime minister’s remarks in an interview with The Huffington Post: “We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions – that although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also, I think, starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.”
About two months later, Obama told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “When something like that happens, that has foreign-policy consequences – and precisely because we’re so close to Israel – for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on these issues.”
Over the past four years, there have been many other moments that surely would have angered Obama.
There was the Likud campaign slogan, “It’s Bibi or Tibi,” referring to Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi. There are Netanyahu’s many comments against the State Attorney’s Office and their pursuit of corruption cases against him, which he says are targeting him because he is a right-winger.
There is Netanyahu’s long-standing animosity toward the media, attempts to have more government control over it – which is also the context to one of his indictments – and social-media posts targeting specific journalists. And, in recent months, there are his attempts to stop protests against him, citing COVID-19 social-distancing rules.
These were all actions and statements that Netanyahu’s critics have called undemocratic, and it is likely the Obama administration would have called him out on it, as its alumni have done in recent years.
US President Donald Trump, however, has had nothing to say about them. The Trump administration has mostly had a hands-off policy on these kinds of issues in foreign countries, especially when it comes to US allies.
Beyond that policy, the Trump administration’s silence on these matters makes sense because these are mostly positions that Netanyahu and Trump have in common. Both rail against the media on a regular basis. Both have been investigated and essentially put on trial – in Trump’s case, impeached – on charges they utterly denied. Their most ardent followers think the “deep state” – or as a pro-Netanyahu broadcaster has memorably called it, the “deep shtetl” – is trying to get rid of their leader.
Though some of this behavior predates 2016, Netanyahu, it seems, has been emboldened by Trump on this front. He uses many of Trump’s favorite phrases, like “witch hunt” and “fake news.”
If Biden becomes president, however, Netanyahu may think twice before continuing in that vein. Biden has made it amply clear that he plans to put a greater emphasis on human rights in foreign policy – though he said so, in contexts that are very different from Israel, about countries that are not democracies at all, like Saudi Arabia.
Biden has not said anything critical about Netanyahu in this campaign, and perhaps he won’t. As the then-vice president said in 2014: “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say, but I love you.” Maybe that love, and Biden’s talent at finding common ground with people, means that he’ll keep any criticism he has on the liberal-values front quiet and make known directly to Netanyahu any issues he has.
At the same time, on some of these counts, Netanyahu may feel like he has no choice but to continue to slam Israeli institutions, protesters and the media. As his confrontations with Obama show, Netanyahu does not hesitate to face an American president head-on when he thinks he’s doing something that endangers Israel.
And if Netanyahu feels personally threatened, as he does by the state attorney’s pursuit of three corruption cases against him, tut-tutting from Biden may very well not deter him.


Tags court media