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Netanyahu and Trump Still Pose an Enduring Threat to Israel and America

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'It is impossible to see either Israel or America settling into something like political normalcy with these two characters prowling around in the shadows': Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu
'It is impossible to see either Israel or America settling into something like political normalcy with these two characters prowling around in the shadows': Donald Trump and Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Evan Vucci,AP

The problem with narcissistic, anti-democratic, ethno-nationalist, arsonist would-be kings is that the will of the people is not a very big deal for them. Neither, apparently, is the rule of law or historical precedent.

Sadly, the acute awareness of this fact is yet another bond shared by the people of Israel and the people of the United States. 

Admittedly, Donald Trump, America’s narcissistic anti-democratic ethno-nationalist would-be king only lost the popular vote in two national elections compared to the four times that Benjamin Netanyahu has been unable to win a majority, or form an enduring coalition government, within the past two years. But then again, our guy was also impeached twice over roughly the same period.

Both, however, have demonstrated that in their view they know better than the people and, although Bibi has yet to actually incite an insurrection and encourage his followers to occupy the Knesset and sit with their feet up on opposition leader Yair Lapid’s desk, now that he’s run out of time to form a government, who knows what is next. 

An election campaign billboard for the Likud party showing a portrait of leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and opposition party leader Yair Lapid, with Hebrew graffiti reading 'Go Home'Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

(And let’s be fair, his efforts to rig the criminal trial against him by illegally attempting to make one of his own guys Justice Minister, and the last-minute ploy he promoted for the direct election of the prime minister, are pretty darned Trumpian in their corruption and intergalactic levels of chutzpah.)

Still, here we are, with Netanyahu having lost yet another political battle, having failed to put together a government in the allotted time, and he is still around, seemingly immune to democracy, the Rasputin of Israeli politics, metaphorically poisoned, shot, and tossed into the freezing Neva River only to look up and say, "Come on in, the water’s fine. My plan was to go for a swim all along."

With America’s "former guy" still dominating U.S. politics, despite similar treatment from the American voters, the U.S. and Israel have much to commiserate about. But the cases are also very different. 

Though both abused their offices and brought disgrace upon them, both are unscrupulous and racist, Netanyahu has shown periodic flashes of competence in office. Trump, in contrast, never demonstrated neither the slightest hint of ability nor, frankly, that much interest in any part of the job other than soaking up the slavering of his acolytes and flattery of those who sought to manipulate him. (Israel’s once and future King Bibi can be included in that category.)

In addition to the enduring threat both men pose to their own countries, there are other factors, however, which continue to link them.

Notably, they have both left a legacy of empowering small groups of extremists, who ensure both that they will remain relevant in the political system and that the worst of the ideas they embraced will poison the political system in their countries for years to come.

In Trump’s case, those extremists are the members of his own party, who are currently waging a war against anyone who dares to speak the truth about Trump or, let’s face it, about almost anything at all. 

In Netanyahu’s case, they are the right-wing parties he empowered who are now likely to play a disproportionate role in the next Israeli government, whether Netanyahu is the Prime Minister or not. 

Israeli border police block members of "Lahava", a far right Jewish extremist group, from approaching the Damascus Gate, just outside Jerusalem's Old City last weekCredit: Ariel Schalit,AP

If that wasn’t enough, both have also empowered extra-parliamentary far right street gangs who take their cue from the top to perpetrate political violence, from the streets of Jerusalem to the steps of the Capitol.

Members of the far-right Proud Boys join supporters of US President Donald Trump as they demonstrate in Washington, DC. December 12, 2020.Credit: JOSE LUIS MAGANA - AFP

In addition, of course, both men have damaged the standing of their countries, weakened democracy in both, promoting division and racism in both, and both fully intend to continue to do so for as long as there is a microphone within speaking distance or a Twitter account accessible to the thumbs of their communications teams.

Further, because the two share a level of self-love that most folks have the decency to practice only in the privacy of their own homes, and because between the two of them you could not find the tiniest crumb of a scruple, both have cast a cloud over the foreseeable political futures of their countries. It is just impossible to see either nation settling into something like political normalcy with these two characters prowling around in the shadows.

Finally, though, the two men who continue to fail upward in our respective political systems send an important message about our times.

The rally called by then-President Donald Trump to oppose the certification of the 2020 elections, where the president incited his supporters to march on the CapitolCredit: John Minchillo,AP

We live in an era of narcissistic anti-democratic ethno-nationalist would-be kings. Although Bibi and the former guy are outstandingly odious, they are not so much the exception as the rule among major powers in the world today. India’s Modi, Russia’s Putin, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, China’s Xi, Turkey’s Erdogan all more or less fit the same profile.

All have done massive damage to their countries, often impacting in severe ways their standing, their institutions and their people. Some have successes. Bibi handled the COVID vaccination campaign fairly well. Xi has managed to maintain economic progress even as he has violated fundamental standards of human rights and imposed himself as ruler for life. Putin has cornered the market in shirtless photographs of world leaders. 

But taken together, all represent a serious threat not just to their people, but to the entire planet.

So, even as we seek to sort out the confusing scenarios for what is next in Israeli or American politics, we must also stop and ask ourselves why such leaders are a hallmark of our time. What is it about this moment that has produced them?

And, more importantly, what we can do, as voters, activists, donors, commentators and public figures, to end this era as quickly as possible, and to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again?

David Rothkopf's latest book is "Traitor: A History of Betraying America from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump." He is also a podcast host and CEO of The Rothkopf Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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