Netanyahu and Trump: two desperate men exploiting power to save themselves

Chris McGreal

The Guardian  /  July 27, 2023

Israeli PM growing increasingly Trump-like in willingness to turn a personal crisis into a national one to stay in power and out of jail.

When Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to ensure his re-election four years ago, he turned to Donald Trump.

Or, to be exact, to giant billboards of the then US president putting on his least threatening smile as he shook hands with the Israeli prime minister, under the Hebrew caption: “Netanyahu: in a different league”.

Trump’s endorsement was a win for the man who has been Israel’s prime minister longer than any other. The US president was popular with Israelis for thumbing his nose at longstanding Washington policies by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

Trump’s standing in Israel, at 71% approval for his handling of international affairs, was higher than in almost any other country.

But as much as many Israelis liked Trump, few foresaw the extent to which their own prime minister would prove as willing to turn a personal crisis into a national one in order to save his own skin.

“The driving priority for both Trump and Netanyahu is their own personal interests,” said Hadar Susskind, president of Americans for Peace Now, sister organization to the Israeli peace movement. “The creation of this most extreme government in Israel’s history was about keeping Netanyahu in power and hence out of jail.”

Both men are in a fight to stay out of prison. Federal and state charges are stacking up against Trump; Netanyahu is in the middle of a corruption trial that has already lasted more than three years. And power gives the pair the best prospect of avoiding justice.

Trump proved his willingness to launch populist attacks on the institutions of state throughout his presidency, culminating in his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election result and his part in rousing a mob to storm the Capitol. If he returns to power, Americans can expect a full-on assault on the independence of the judicial system and Department of Justice.

Netanyahu has gone a different route by forging a coalition with some of the most extreme ultranationalist parties in Israel, even if he does not share some of their views, such as their hostility to LGBTQ rights. Their leaders are unashamedly racist about Arabs and open about their ambitions to annex some or all of the occupied territories, and make permanent the Israeli dominance over the Palestinians.

The coalition is pushing ahead with legislation to curb the power of Israel’s judiciary that has prompted some of the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history and a deep political crisis. The first stage passed on Monday, when Israel’s parliament voted to limit the supreme court’s ability to overturn laws.

Netanyahu and his allies have a common interest in weakening the power of the courts. It gives him a chance of avoiding prison while removing what the far right fears will be a block on its ambitions for a Greater Israel.

But if Trump and Netanyahu are two desperate men hoping to exploit their power to save themselves at the expense of their countries, there are important differences. For a start, when Americans elected Trump as president in 2016, they knew exactly what kind of political leader they were getting – even if he proved more destabilizing and seditious than some supporters expected.

In contrast, Aaron David Miller, who knows Netanyahu from his time as a US Middle East peace negotiator during several administrations, said the Israeli prime minister is not the same politician he was a few years ago.

“He’s no longer the risk-averse, cautious Israeli politician who takes one step forward and two steps back. Who respects public opinion. Who’s tough but coerces within the lines. Now he is risk-ready and desperate and in many respects, he has lost control. He’s driven by the fact that if elections were held tomorrow, someone else could put together a government and he’d be vulnerable to what he really cares about, which is the existential problem of his trial,” he said.

Susskind said that even some of Netanyahu’s supporters have been surprised by the extent to which he has been prepared to subvert the system to protect himself.

“He used to be, for lack of a more precise term, like a normal politician. He was cautious about things and did try to reach consensus. Right now, we are seeing the acts of a desperate man.”

No one ever accused Trump of being a normal politician; the US is still living with the consequences of his presidency. But Netanyahu may have been the more damaging leader over the longer term, going back to the assassination of the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995.

As leader of the opposition, he led rallies to oppose Rabin’s peace accords with the Palestinians at which the prime minister was portrayed in a Nazi uniform amid chants of “Death to Rabin”.

Rabin’s widow, Leah, accused Netanyahu of being the ringmaster in whipping up the incitement that led to her husband’s murder.

Seven months after the assassination, Netanyahu was elected to his first term on his way to becoming Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. His critics drew on a biblical phrase – “murdered and also inherited” – to condemn him.

Susskind said Israel is still living with that legacy. “He has driven Israel to where it is, in terms of inciting hatred within the society. I think more than anybody else he’s responsible for that,” he said.

Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem