Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump have forged what is possibly the closest-ever ideological relationship between a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister.
Both are business-oriented, free market capitalists, ultra-nationalist and often xenophobic populists. They share a disdain for minorities, contempt for Europeans, hostility to Muslims, admiration for authoritarians, love for themselves and hyper-inflated sense of their own irreplaceable role in history.
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Trump’s pro-Israel policies are the most lop-sided in the history of the ties between the two countries; Israel, in return, is consistently ranked as one of the most pro-Trump countries in the world. The recent coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz showcases Trump’s august position: He will be the final arbiter of just how much territory Israel will be able to annex in the West Bank, as if it had no defense or foreign policy of its own.
And yet, since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis in January this year, the duo hitherto known as Siamese Twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and collectively, in these columns, as Trumpyahu, couldn’t be any more different. Their actions and reactions to the pandemic have been polar opposites. Among world leaders, Netanyahu has been among the most cautious; Trump, on the other hand, is one of the most reckless.
When Trump was pooh-poohing the disease as an insignificant nuisance that will soon pass, Netanyahu envisaged a plague of medieval, Black Plague proportions. While Trump was dissing social distancing, Netanyahu ordered the strictest lockdown on the planet. When Trump was dismissing and contradicting the warnings of his professional advisers, Netanyahu was obeying their every word, and then some.
While Trump predicted an end to precautionary measures within weeks and is now actively agitating against his more prudent state governors, Netanyahu laid the ground for an endless lockdown and dismissed increasing criticism of his overcautious regime. Nothing could be more emblematic of Netanyahu’s zeal than his decision on Wednesday to bar bereaved families from visiting the graves of fallen soldiers during next week’s Remembrance Day. For Netanyahu, coronavirus trumps even the holiest of holies.
The divergent paths taken by Trump and Netanyahu in the face of an unprecedented global and national crisis are partly a reflection of the vast differences between the two countries that they rule. Israel is compact, close-knit, centralistic, accustomed to national mobilization and has a low tolerance for loss of lives.
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The U.S. is vast, porous, diverse, devolutionist and individualistic: It hasn’t experienced a true emergency throughout its territory for over a century. And it has a president who plans to tout 50 or 60 thousand coronavirus fatalities as a feather in his cap in the upcoming election campaign while millions of Americans will cheer him on.
But it is their disparate backgrounds and personalities that truly set Trump and Netanyahu apart and which have now launched them on completely contrary trajectories. While both have been labeled by lay critics as narcissists, Netanyahu is of the pessimistic and alarmist variety, while Trump is certain that his very presence will inevitably set things right. Perhaps that is because Trump was born a narcissist while Netanyahu had narcissism thrust upon him as he progressed in life.
Netanyahu is a learned man while Trump is essentially a dilettante. Netanyahu still respects science, Trump believes he’s larger than life. Netanyahu was raised by a father who devoted his life to the Spanish Inquisition; he grew up believing calamity was just around the corner. Trump was raised by a real-estate shark; he grew up believing the world was his plaything, if he played his cards right.
Psychologists would say both leaders are insecure at their core. Trump and Netanyahu are self-aggrandizing politicians who exaggerate their own achievements and belittle and ignore those of others. Netanyahu, however, recoils at criticism and tries to avoid it; Trump seems to thrive on rebuke, and often seems to purposely provoke it.
Notwithstanding his myriad faults, Netanyahu shares Israeli society’s relatively low tolerance for loss of life, amplified by his own grief at the Entebbe death of his brother Yoni. Decades of traumatic concern for soldiers and collective grief over their deaths have spilled over into the civilian arena. As of Wednesday, Israel had recorded 21.26 coronavirus fatalities per million. If the rate was anywhere close to the U.S.’s 136 per million and rising – never mind the U.K.’s 255, Spain’s 455 or Belgium’s 517 – the country would be in utter turmoil, if not total meltdown.
Netanyahu’s has wielded his inherent alarmism to frighten his citizens and unite them in the face of a common enemy. He has thus stifled his opposition, brought its leader Gantz to his knees and forged a so-called “national emergency government” that could also fulfill his overarching objective of averting his criminal trial. If elections were held today – rather than in six months, say, when the full impact of the economic paralysis will be felt – he would be shoo-in.
Trump, on the other hand, has antagonized his governors, appalled the federal bureaucracy, galvanized his opposition and split America in two. He is now actively campaigning against health precautions, encouraging his followers to risk their own lives in pursuit of his hare-brained theories on the progression of the epidemic. If elections were held today – rather than November 3, by which time Trump’s election campaign will reach full-on hysteria mode – his opponent, Joe Biden, would be shoo-in.
Netanyahu and Trump haven’t changed. They still share striking similarities: Both are cynical political manipulators, masters of division and incitement, blind to their own transgressions, steeped in self-victimization and increasingly touched by megalomania.
The coronavirus crisis, however, has exposed their deep dissimilarities as well: Netanyahu’s alarmism and caution have saved Israeli lives: Trump’s ignorance and recklessness have, tragically, taken the lives of many thousands of Americans. Even the most ardent of Trump’s Israeli fans would admit that in this case, Vive la Difference.