Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are as different as night and day, mostly in Netanyahu’s favor. Nonetheless, their paths are intertwined in ways that often seem uncanny. 48 hours after Robert Mueller put his hands on one of Trump’s closest advisers Michael Flynn, the Israeli police dragged in Netanyahu’s most visible advocate, David Bitan, for questioning. Coincidence? Of course. Symbolic? Definitely.
True, the subject of Bitan’s interrogation is unconnected to the ongoing investigations against Netanyahu, unlike the confession of Trump’s former National Security Adviser, which seems to be bringing Mueller ever closer to the door of the Oval Office. But both leaders feel the legal noose tightening around their necks; both view their predicament as the product of a sinister plot hatched by rivals; and both intend to fight tooth and nail to escape indictment, even if their battle will scar their countries democracies and undermine their rule of law.
For both, a Middle East peace process could mitigate their ordeal. The same Jared Kushner who is said to be next on Mueller’s hit list appeared on Sunday at the Saban Forum as the grand guru of Middle East peacemaking. Although right wingers have long embraced Kushner as one of their own, the chances that the Trump administration could actually produce a workable formula for peace is Kushner’s only visible venture that might make others regret his apprehension by Mueller.
Similarly, a peace plan that upsets the radical Israeli right but seems reasonable to most other Israelis could emerge as Netanyahu’s escape hatch, allowing him to go to early elections, not as a leader evading the police but as one pursuing peace and standing up for Israel’s security, despite the political cost.
Nonetheless, Trump’s travails and outbursts in the 48 hours that have passed since Flynn’s confession was submitted to court signal that he knows all too well that even spectacular political achievements, such as Friday’s Senate approval of the GOP’s sweeping tax reform, won’t get Mueller or the media off his back. Instead of basking in his first significant perhaps even historic victory on Capitol Hill, after ten months of dismal failure, Trump spent the weekend ranting against the FBI and imputing Mueller’s motives. This is not a sign of a president who is confident, as his lawyers claim, that he is in the clear, despite the fact that so many of his campaign activists and transition advisers maintained extensive contacts with Kremlin officials or proxies before and after last November’s election.
Netanyahu has developed a similar knack for proclaiming his complete innocence despite all the evidence to the contrary. Not only has an extraordinary portion of Netanyahu’s aides and assistants gotten in trouble with the law in recent months, the facts that are already known about the events for which Netanyahu is being investigated are damning enough, ethically if not legally. Netanyahu accepted expensive gifts from billionaires that he has retroactively adopted as “friends”; his cousin and personal lawyer tried to make a mint from a lucrative submarine deal while supposedly concealing his involvement from Netanyahu; the prime minister plotted with his allegedly greatest rival, newspaper publisher Yedioth Achronot, to fix the newspaper market; and, like Trump, he has been relentlessly eroding public confidence in the Israeli police and judicial authorities, portraying them as witting or unwitting agents of leftist cabals out to oust him.
Similarly, in other times and different place, what is already known about Trump’s efforts to shut down the FBI’s investigation of Flynn should be enough to condemn him publicly, and, in his case, perhaps to indict him for obstruction of justice as well. One thing that can be said of Netanyahu and his lawyers, they would never make the kind of astonishingly rookie mistakes that Trump has committed. In the past he has publicly boasted of firing FBI Director James Comey because of the Russia investigation, confessing in fact to an attempt to stifle it. Now, in a weekend tweet, he has apparently admitted that he was well aware that Flynn had lied to the FBI –i.e. had committed a criminal offense – when he asked Comey, according to the G-man’s testimony, to try and get Flynn off the hook.
But even the usually calculated and levelheaded Netanyahu is showing signs of losing his customary cool. His attacks on police chief Roni Alsheich for purported leaks to the press have stiffened the police’s resolve to nab Netanyahu. And the prime minister’s efforts to tailor criminal law to fit his personal needs, including his now abandoned proposal to prevent the police from publishing their recommendations at the end of their investigation, have backfired spectacularly. They have shown even the most accommodating state attorneys that the prime minister will stop at nothing to avoid prosecution. More importantly, they have jarred an otherwise docile Israeli public and brought thousands of protestors to Tel Aviv streets on Saturday night for the first time since Netanyahu’s criminal problems began.
Both leaders seem to be suffering from an acute condition of l’etat c’est moi, and even worse. They behave as if their personal fate is far more important than the welfare of the countries the lead. They have impugned the integrity of criminal proceedings and shaken the public’s confidence in impartial investigators, prosecutors and judges. The outrage they have been whipping up among their core supporters against legal authorities pits democratic institutions against sizeable parts of public opinion, creating a crisis of confidence that may very well linger on long after they leave public life.
Even if they were completely innocent of any wrongdoing, the cynical and ultimately destructive reactions of both leaders to their legal obstacles are reason enough for them to be deemed unfit for office. Netanyahu may be the victim of his extensive tenure in office, soon to be the longest in Israel’s history. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and unending power apparently erases a leaders ability to distinguish between right and wrong, between what is acceptable and what is abominable.
As for Trump, he was thoroughly corrupted when he first came to the White House. His overinflated ego, his inability to view affairs of state beyond the personal, his tendency to divide the world into haters and sycophants, his complete ignorance of American history and utter disregard for the norms of holding power, along with his total lack of self-awareness or capacity for introspection are all evident in his destructive and often self-defeating campaign against his pursuers. In Trump’s case, however, his proven tendency to break all rules, trample all rivals and stop at nothing to achieve his aims is what endeared him to his voters in the first place. It’s what made him President.
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