There are two countries that I’ve been professionally, emotionally and intellectually involved with my entire journalism career — the United States and Israel. I’ve never been more worried about both, because President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are essentially the same person, and they pose the same threat to their respective nations.
They are both men utterly without shame, backed by parties utterly without spine, protected by big media outlets utterly without integrity. They are both funded by a Las Vegas casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson. They are both making support for Israel a “Republican’’ cause — no longer a bipartisan one. And they each could shoot an innocent man in broad daylight in the middle of Fifth Avenue and their supporters would say the victim had it coming.
As a result, they are each free to cross red lines that their predecessors never dared to. Which is why I believe that four more years of Netanyahu, which is almost certain after Israel’s election on Tuesday, and six more years of Trump, which is a real possibility, will hasten the emergence of an America and an Israel where respect for civility, democracy, an independent judiciary and independent media are no longer examples for others to follow.
Instead, both countries will be cautionary tales of how precious are the norms and institutions that bind a democracy, and how easily they can be undermined by leaders who will tell any lie, smear any competitor and wink at any extremist to stay in power.
Netanyahu’s first order of business will be to strike an agreement with his potential coalition partners, most of them far-right, pro-settler parties, in which, as Haaretz reported, those parties will agree to create legislation that gets rid of the multiple indictments for corruption looming in Bibi’s future — and in return he will agree to annex West Bank settlements to Israel. And Trump will somehow go along, maybe as part of his own peace plan. It is going to be a dirty business, for sure.
But what else could we expect? The parallels between Trump and Netanyahu are now deep and broad.
Bibi has openly embraced a racist, anti-Arab Israeli party and racist, anti-Arab rhetoric, unlike any previous Israeli prime minister. At the same time, he has steadily been erasing the Green Line that separated Israel from the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians — with the help of Trump’s ambassador to Israel — making it increasingly unlikely that Israel will ever separate itself from that area and increasingly likely that it will become a binational state in which Jews will enjoy rights that Palestinians will be denied.
Meanwhile, Trump is increasingly turning America into a banana republic, firing cabinet officials and senior bureaucrats who refuse to carry out his impulsive orders, which are often illegal and mostly related to preventing legal and illegal immigration or asylum requests along the Mexico-United States border. Trump prefers to govern through “acting’’ cabinet secretaries — he has fired their bosses and not replaced them — who are much more vulnerable to his whims and more accepting of his more than 10,000 lies and falsehoods since taking office.
Bibi, for his part, prefers to simply hold multiple portfolios: For a good chunk of his last term he was prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and health minister.
Both men have no close friends. The one major difference between them is that Bibi is very smart, an avid reader and a deft tactician in managing relations with Israel’s neighbors and big powers, such as America, Russia, India and China. Trump is clever but probably has not read a book in years. He gets his information from Fox News and other right-wing media, and rather than playing Vladimir Putin, has been played by him.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are being investigated for serious financial improprieties. Israel’s attorney general has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three corruption cases.
Trump has been cleared by the special counsel on charges of collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, but he remains under investigation, as Reuters noted, on “issues including his businesses and financial dealings, personal conduct, charitable foundation and inaugural committee.’’ Five close Trump aides have already admitted to crimes, mostly financial, or been convicted.
Neither man is interested in being a leader for all their people. Each has chosen to rule by dividing his people, not uniting them. They each just want to win by 50.01 percent, by using fear of the outsider and drawing cultural or religious distinctions between their citizens to garner just enough votes to squeak by.
Bibi’s strategy was to demonize Israeli Arabs, and Trump’s was to demonize Muslims and Mexicans and immigrants from what he called “shithole’’ countries. Both men have rebuilt their parties around themselves and their personal politics, and both believe that as long as they can hold their bases by stoking enough fear and cultural division, they can win — and they’re willing to sacrifice any values or norms to do so.
Neither man is entirely wrong about the world around him. America does have an illegal immigration problem that Democrats have not taken seriously enough. Israel has real enemies like Iran and its proxies. But Israel’s external enemies are well deterred. The existential threat to Israel is internal —that it will annex the West Bank with its Palestinian population and look to the world as an apartheidlike South Africa.
My critique of both men is that they consistently try to use these real threats for political gain — to feed fears, rather than to think creatively about how to defuse them. Because for Bibi to think imaginatively about how to separate from the West Bank and for Trump to think creatively about how to defuse our immigration problem with a coherent national strategy would require each to disappoint or confront the extreme ultranationalists who form the core bases of their support. Neither has the courage or the desire to do so.
Indeed, Netanyahu has gone so deep into the gutter that in this last election he agreed to partner with a small, racist, anti-Arab Israeli party — a party so vile that the Israeli Supreme Court barred its leader from running. In response, Netanyahu’s allies immediately threatened to gut the Supreme Court if they win. I don’t have to tell you where Trump has gone in indulging white supremacists.
Bibi will go down in history as the Israeli leader who concretized the distinction between “Israelis’’ and “Jews,’’ noted Bernard Avishai in a smart essay in The New Yorker: “The menace, Netanyahu has implied, is not just the Arabs but what might be termed Israeliness — a legal and cultural identity available to any citizen who participates in Hebrew-speaking civil society, including the 20 percent who are Arab.’’
While Benny Gantz, Bibi’s opponent in the recent election, has argued that, broadly defined, “Israeli identity is increasingly plausible for, among others, young, middle-class Arabs, who accounted for more than 16 percent of students in bachelor’s degree programs in 2017,’’ that is not Netanyahu’s view.
“Netanyahu’s version, in contrast,’’ Avishai explained, “is a state essentially reserved for Jews, including those in the diaspora, who can prove their Jewishness by either rabbinical certification or maternal descent — one that is democratic only in the sense that Jews constitute the majority, the general will of Jews necessarily prevails, and non-Jews are in the state by sufferance, not really by right.’’
That is why Netanyahu passed the recent Nation-State Law, which stipulated that Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.” However much American Jews — and traditional, secular American Jewish supporters of Israel — “may try to shield Netanyahu, it is increasingly clear that he is at odds with their democratic standards, which are already under assault,’’ Avishai concluded. “American Jews, like Israeli voters, have choices to make.’’ Is Israel a state for Jews or for all its citizens?
Trump has dabbled in the same kind of tropes. He may not say it explicitly, but his whole worldview, evident from his dog whistles, is that real Americans are primarily white Judeo-Christians — certainly not Muslims — and that all black or brown immigrants are suspect.
Finally, both Trump and Bibi worship only one thing — raw, naked power, and they are not afraid to exercise it. Bibi is convinced that if Israel is strong militarily, economically and technologically, the world will bend to its will and beat a path to its door. The Palestinians will surrender; the Arabs will deal with Israel under the table; and China, India and Russia will all come to buy Israeli software. And so far he has been right. Bibi is convinced that liberal American Jews are worthless, that they’ll soon disappear via intermarriage and that the country’s Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians will be powerful enough to do Israel’s bidding in Washington.
Trump too has an obsession with raw power; his favorite insult is to call someone “weak.’’ He lives by the credo: Never apologize, no matter how foul your actions or how big your lie. Just stand firm and everyone will eventually bend your way. It has worked for him too. But at what long-term costs for both societies?
Trump is replacing the entire logic of American foreign policy since World War II — that more global integration and stronger global rules and institutions will make for a more prosperous world, and if America pays a little more than others for that we will reap far more benefits because we are the world’s biggest economy — with a philosophy of competitive nationalism.
For Trump, all the global institutions built after World War II — NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations — are just tools for small countries to rip off America or stick it to Israel. Trump actually wants the European Union to crack up, because he thinks that if the United States just negotiates with every nation bilaterally, it will be able to impose asymmetrical trade agreements on them.
So have no doubts: Four more years of Netanyahu and six more years of Trump won’t just change America and Israel. It will change the world — and not for the better.