Analysis

Netanyahu Is Getting Trumpier and Trumpier

The prime minister views the new president as a role model - and potential lifesaver.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference in Tel Aviv, January 2017.
David Bachar

The basic facts are well known, but nonetheless bear repeating.  On Saturday night, 24 hours after President Trump signed the controversial executive order on building a wall with Mexico, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” Within a few hours a diplomatic row with Mexico was well under way.

Netanyahu now claims that he wasn’t referring to Mexico at all, only responding to Trump’s earlier praise of the fence that Israel has built on its southern border. That’s an assertion that one can accept only if A. Netanyahu is an idiot, which he isn’t, or B. Is losing touch with reality, which is not totally inconceivable or C. Is working all on his own now with hardly any input from anyone who knows anything about anything or dares question his Supreme Wisdom. Which is almost certain.

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But whether Netanyahu intended to support Trump’s wall or was just guilty of atrociously negligent phrasing, no one who read his tweet on Saturday night had any reason to doubt that the Israeli prime minister was praising Trump’s “idea” for a wall with Mexico. Rather than acknowledge this obvious fact, Netanyahu doubled down.  It was the leftist media that was pumping up the incident. It was the Hebrew-language Israeli reporters and commentators who had convinced Mexico that it should get insulted and angry. Let that sink in: Netanyahu was telling the Israeli public that left to their own devices, the Mexicans, who are hopping mad at Trump, wouldn’t have given his tweet a second thought. Were it not for the media, he’s implying, it would never have occurred to Mexico that when he praises Trump and his ideas about a wall, he’s doing nothing of the sort. It’s an inane absurdity which could very well appeal to a U.S. president who claimed this week that the massive foul-up he had manufactured in his inept handling of his new decree on Muslim immigration was actually caused by a computer glitch at Delta Airlines.

Netanyahu is an old hand at such shenanigans, though they’re now being classified as Trumpian. He too makes outrageously false assertions, such as the infamous Election Day battle cry “The Arabs are swarming in hordes to the ballot boxes” which was just as true as Trump’s claim that “thousands of Muslims" were dancing in the streets on 9/11. Trump blames the “lyin’ media” for his troubles and accuses news organizations of making up stories about him that are usually demonstrably true. Netanyahu depicts himself as a helpless victim of media malice, even though he’s now the unassailable czar of the Israeli communications industry, and he describes the entire news industry as “leftist” which, these days, is as valid as claiming that Trump is a towering intellectual. Both leaders know that no matter what they are accused of, their loyal base will always prefer to hate the media instead.  

Netanyahu has been at this game way longer than Trump and has hitherto been viewed as infinitely more sophisticated than the new American president. In recent months, however, Netanyahu seems to be learning new tricks from the American president. Netanyahu has reverted more and more to Twitter and Facebook where he can savage the press as he pleases and launch ad hominem attacks against reporters who have uncovered his wrongdoings. And he can do so without the nagging filters of the media and those tiresome fact-checkers who believe, for some arcane reason, that a leader’s words should have some connection to reality.

In an appearance before the Likud on Monday, Netanyahu even used Trump’s favorite term “fake news” to try and undermine the growing body of evidence about his alleged misconduct. He knows there’s no denying that he received hundreds of thousands dollars worth of gifts from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, or that he secretly colluded with Yedioth publisher Noni Mozes while telling the world how despicable he is or that his personal lawyer David Shimron made a mint off the purchase of submarines from Germany, in which Netanyahu was closely and heavily involved. Forget all that: it’s all fake news, Netanyahu said. And the attorney general that was his close aide in the years before assuming office, the chief of police that Netanyahu personally appointed and the State Comptroller that he chose because he thought he would be toothless and pliable? They’re are all part and parcel now of a grand conspiracy that Netanyahu describes to the public, an assertion so ludicrous you can’t believe he might actually believe it, even though he might. 

Netanyahu has always been flexible with the truth, but his lies and distortions are gushing forth now at an ever-increasing pace. He’s always known how to pin the blame on “elites” and “the media” but his brazenness has multiplied many times over in recent months. He’s always excelled at inciting against his political enemies, as we’ve known since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, though Trump is definitely up there with him, in the big leagues, in the realm of fomenting division and hate.

Perhaps it’s only because there is now such a solid basis for comparison, but Netanyahu seems to be growing Trumpier and Trumpier with each passing day. He appreciates Trump’s coarse but effective propaganda and seems to be taking some new cues from him. He’s allowing himself to be increasingly swayed by ultra-right, Stephen Bannon type policies. He’s had nothing but warm praise for Trump and has kept his mouth shut even when the White House dabbles in outright Holocaust denial.

Netanyahu may be sucking up to Trump in advance of February 15 meeting in Washington for the benefit of U.S.-Israeli relations or, if you lean more cynical, for the benefit of Netanyahu himself. The prime minister may feel that getting off spectacularly with Trump, and possibly feigning a new policy on Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is his last lifeline, a desperate Hail Mary move that could somehow extricate him from his legal morass. How can you allow the evil leftists in the media, the police and Justice Ministry get rid of me, Netanyahu will ask the Israeli public, when we’re on the verge of a new dawn and I’m at the start of beautiful friendship with the most powerful man in the world?

You can actually imagine a White House press conference in which Netanyahu says Trump is wise and cautious, Trump asserts that Bibi is honest and courageous, Netanyahu ups the ante by swearing that Trump doesn’t have a racist or dishonest bone in his body and Trump returns the favor by proclaiming that Netanyahu is innocent, that he’s being hounded by crazy media and that the Israeli attorney general should think very carefully before proceeding with a criminal indictment against his new best friend, or Trump might fire him. Then both of them will claim that there’s never been a better match between Israeli and American leaders. Everyone says so. It’s true. It’s just amazing.

Unlikely? Perhaps. Impossible? You must have been asleep during the past year, in general, and the past ten days, in particular, to think so. Everything is possible, including a Trump and Netanyahu love fest, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, in which it suddenly gets harder and harder to tell one from the other.  And anyone who will try to call them out and say it’s all a sham, is, of course, a damn leftist liar.