Bibi’s Trump Show: How Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Wins by Imitating the Donald

As Israel votes today, it’s time to pause and ponder just how bad a sign Netanyahu’s aping of Trump is for the state of Israel’s politics

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter@bfry1981) September 17th, 2019

Ofer Vaknin

CAMBRIDGE — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far more experienced, capable, intelligent, articulate, and even respected (as reviled as he is) than U.S. President Donald Trump.  Why, then, one might wonder, would “Bibi” (as many of Netanyahu’s admirers and detractors refer to him) be putting on a show of political performance art imitating Trump?

This is no sudden Mad Queen turn, but, sadly, another in a long list of shrewd moves of Netanyahu’s designed to ensure his political survival.  With the exception of Filipinos, Israelis gave Trump the highest vote of confidence of any international population surveyed by Pew (69% of them), some 30% higher than his U.S. approval rating and far higher than Netanyahu’s 51% approval rating in Israel.  And, as I have noted in my post for The London School of Economics and Politics Middle East Centre, each is encouraging bad things in the other as they fan the flames of tribalism for their political purposes.

In the U.S., Trump pits whites against non-whites, the public against the media, his Administration against career professionals in the government, be they intelligence professionals investigating the Kremlin or law enforcement officials investigating his own misconduct or just lowly weather officials, and flirts with starting a war.  In Israel, Netanyahu of late has played a similar game; he, too, goes after the media, and, instead of non-whites, his targets are Arabs, though this has been the case with him for a while.  But now, he is also flirting with starting a war, even so far as to try to delay today’s election to do so.  Additionally, since he has been recommended for criminal prosecution by Israeli legal authorities (including Israel’s Attorney General), Netanyahu has also turned against Israeli authorities trying to hold him accountable for his misdeeds, deliberately echoing Trump’s language in accusing a “deep state” within his own government of trying to orchestrate something of a coup against him (the most accurate translation of “deep state” for the sane is “rule of law”).  Netanyahu and his allies are even pushing or have pushed for passing laws giving Netanyahu immunity from prosecution and limiting the ability of Israeli courts to curb political leaders, and is even pushing for the illegal annexation of large swaths of Palestinian land in the final run-up to today’s election (to stay focused, we won’t even go into Trump’s plethora of illegalities here).  Trump and his allies back up Netanyahu, especially close to elections, and Netanyahu and his people return the favor: Likud, Netanyahu’s party, even has huge posters of Trump and Netanyahu shaking hands up for the election.  And Trump is tweeting just before the election about a mysterious and vague defense treaty with Israel.  Even amid a scandal where the Israelis were apparently caught spying on Trump, Trump basically gave Netanyahu a win, dismissing the scandal because Netanyahu denied it, allowing Netanyahu to play up their relationship and its effectiveness just before Israelis vote, as I noted in my first television interview.

Beset by scandals and investigations, the two have doubled down on division and feeding off of each other, confident that fear will defeat hope.  With Trump, this may seem stupid if you assume he is focusing on Jewish votes, but for him this is less about winning Jewish votes—though Florida with its relatively large number of elderly Jews is surely a consideration—than Evangelical Christian ones, as Evangelicals support extremist right-wing Israeli policies and Netanyahu more than American Jews.  For Netanyahu, this is quite a smart move, since he can ride on Trump’s popularity in Israel and demonstrate to Israelis that he can personally play Trump in Israeli’s favor.

Still, at a time when Israel seems more divided than ever, that Netanyahu has opted to imitate one of the most divisive leaders of a democracy in the world is a sign of the deteriorating health of Israeli democracy and Western Democracy in general.  From Rome to London, from Kashmir to Washington, the behavior of established democracies is not looking too good these days.  Israel’s degree of division is at historic levels: even in that Pew survey of the image people around the world have of the U.S., the Israeli divide between the right and the left is one deep display: 94% favorable vs 57% favorable impressions of the U.S., respectively, the largest of any national public surveyed, a thirty-seven point gap; it was 86% to 37% as far as confidence in Trump personally for the right and left, respectively, a forty-nine point gap and also the largest of the survey.  And the toxic Trump-Netanyahu relationship is also sharply dividing the global Jewish diaspora.

Netanyahu has had far too much fun reading his own premature political obituaries, so I will not contribute to such literature here.  But final polling showed neck-and-neck support between Netanyahu’s Likud-dominated right-wing bloc and the more centrist Blue and White coalition led by former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF: Israel’s military) Benny Gantz, indicating most-likely outcomes of either a second stalemate or a narrow win for Netanyahu.  That in both the U.S. and Israel, two men engaging in cheap division, fostering conflict, and known for cheating and breaking the law can be so strong and competitive is truly a sign of sickness; that the more competent, experienced of the two thinks imitating the less refined, more destabilizing of the two—even to the degree of attacking, along with his party, his own government’s core institutions and the rule of law in Israel—is perhaps even more appalling.

Neither the U.S. nor Israel reached their respective current situations overnight, but here they are.  In Israel’s case, one election this past May produced a stalemate, the first in Israel’s history where a government was not formed, prompting this historic second election just months later.  But like in the U.S., this second chance does not signify a healthy situation, rather, it shows the fundamental weakness of democracy: allowing choice means bad choices are made along with the good, and it seems, whether with Americans supporting Trump or Israelis supporting Netanyahu, hate wins and respect for institutions and the law does not.  Netanyahu has already just this past summer become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, arguably defining the state even more than the man whose record he passed, a Founding Father and Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.  And that does not even get to the U.S. and Trump’s possible staying power.

My gut (which I hope is wrong) tells me that, ever the cat with nine lives, Netanyahu will weather this storm, but even if Netanyahu loses, that it will have been so close is a testament to the erosion of democratic norms in the strongest democracy in the Middle East.  Perhaps most telling, Bibi is a very smart man, and he is not careless in betting on imitating Trump; rather, he is confident that it will help him and he is right.  Whatever this says about Israeli voters and the health of its democracy is not reassuring in the least.

© 2019 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981

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