The bushy eyebrows of Channel 2 police reporter Moshe Nussbaum are almost a national icon in Israel, which is why Benjamin Netanyahu made a point of mocking them in his latest tirade on Tuesday night against his perceived persecutors from the media. Netanyahu might have had second thoughts about bringing his fingers to his eyes to indicate Nussbaum’s physical features as he made fun of the veteran reporter’s broadcast mannerisms, had he known that the journalist’s appearance is the direct result of a Molotov cocktail hurled at him while he was on active duty in Ramallah during the first intifada. But then again, maybe it would have made no difference at all.
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Netanyahu’s impersonation immediately brought to mind the infamous face contortions that Donald Trump used last November to ridicule Pulitzer prize winning New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from congenital joint condition that limits the use of his arms. Trump derided Kovaleski's supposed denial of a story he had written in 2001 for the Washington Post, that Trump had relied on to claim that thousands of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks in the streets of New Jersey. Not only was such a report never found, Trump flatly denied he had known of Kovaleski’s condition, a claim deemed ludicrous by anyone who’s seen the tape. But then again, maybe it would have made no difference at all.
But the use of the physical characteristics to ridicule a journalist whose reporting he doesn’t like wasn’t the most Trumpesque element of Netanyahu’s speech to Likud faithful at a Hanukah candle lighting ceremony near Tel Aviv. Rather, it was Netanyahu’s full-on attack against the police and his efforts to undermine the legitimacy of their investigations – especially that of his own alleged criminal behavior – that struck such a familiar chord. Just as Trump is leading and certainly inspiring a campaign that seeks to undermine the Justice Department, the FBI, special counsel Robert Mueller and anyone else involved in the investigation of his alleged collusion with Russia, so Netanyahu has stepped up his onslaught, directly and by proxy, against the police investigators who are reportedly nearing a recommendation to indict him. The increasingly paranoid prime minister has savaged the media in the past, accusing it of egging on his police investigators, but this is the first time he has stooped as low as to mock journalists’ physical appearance.
Both Trump and Netanyahu seem to be preparing themselves for the possibility that their probers’ findings will be damning. They are both engaged in preemptive damage control, convincing their electoral bases in advance that their investigators’ findings and conclusions are a product of a sinister liberal/leftist/establishment conspiracy. In both cases, most senior figures in their parties, the Likud and the GOP respectively, are keeping silent and trying to stay out of harm’s way but there are plenty of second-tier politicians volunteering to amplify their leaders’ onslaught on the law authorities and on the media.
Netanyahu’s increasingly frantic and shrill reactions to the ongoing investigation of his give-and-take ties to billionaires with vested interests and of his alleged willingness to intervene in the newspaper market in exchange for positive coverage, are not so much a deviation from his conduct in the past as an escalation. Trump’s willingness to defy past conventions, to openly challenge once-venerated agencies and institutions and to ignore and mock any pushback that does not come from his narrow electoral base, have apparently inspired Netanyahu to stretch his own boundaries, to go outside his own previous pale, to buck all the norms that once delineated acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
And while emulating Trump might not go over too well among most Americans, especially American Jews, it could prove more popular among Israelis, many of whom have recently embraced Trump as a hero. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Nikki Haley’s isolated yet unflinching defense of that decision at the United Nations have enhanced Trump’s stature as a President who has Israel’s back. The more Trump is portrayed as a latter day savior of the Jews, the more Israelis will tend to excuse his other transgressions, whether they are Trump’s or Netanyahu’s.
The prime minister has been doing his best to take credit for, and to bask in, Trump’s Israeli glory, gushing enthusiastically about the President’s brave, just and historic decision on Jerusalem. Whatever reservations Netanyahu may harbor about Trump’s character or reliability, the U.S. President’s attitude towards the Middle East so far been seems to have been taken from Netanyahu’s own handbook for perfect American presidents. Full-on support for Israel, no matter what? Check. Apathy to Jewish settlements and Palestinian rights? Check. Hostility towards Iran? Check. Support for Saudi Arabia and other newfound partners in Israel’s anti-Iranian coalition? Check. Thumbing America’s nose at the UN, Europe and other reproving entities? Check.
Trump may be a nightmare for many if not most Americans, but for Netanyahu, he is a sweet dream come true. Netanyahu has never lacked for self-confidence, but with Trump behind him, his tolerance for criticism and dissent, both foreign and domestic has vanished, his swagger has grown more prominent and his open disdain for anyone who thinks otherwise has become ever more explicit. In many ways, Netanyahu is like the kid who gets beat up on the schoolyard every day until he shows up with his bodybuilding big brother and starts taunting his former tormentors.
Which is why you won’t hear a bad word from Netanyahu about Trump, as he has already shown in his reluctance to condemn alleged anti-Semitic manifestations in and around Trump. Now he seems to have adopted Trump as his main role model, - for better, and in this case, for worse - either because he has indeed become Trump’s groupie or simply because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.