Analysis

Trump’s Angry Vendetta Against Rule of Law Is Preview of Netanyahu, Should He Win

Trump’s post-impeachment purges prove the impotence of checks and balances when confronted by a ruthless president who knows no bounds

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020
BRENDAN MCDERMID/ REUTERS

Benjamin Netanyahu’s first phone call after the news networks declared his shock victory in the March 2 elections was to Donald Trump. “I did it,” he told the U.S. president. “The bad guys lost.” Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister, Trump replied coolly. Sensing the frost, Netanyahu immediately added: “I couldn’t have done it without you, Mr. President. You are the pillar of fire leading the way, the light that guides us all.”

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Netanyahu wasn’t simply feigning false flattery, as evidenced by his second phone call, this one to his current and future Justice Minister Amir Ohana. “All systems go,” he said. The next day, Ohana informed the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the government’s intention to dismiss Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. “Deep and ongoing differences on both law and policy mandate his removal”, Ohana wrote, citing the established but never-used guidelines for sacking an attorney general.

Striking the iron while it was still hot, Netanyahu exploited the waves of cult-like adulation that swept his hitherto despondent right wing bloc, which surged to a solid and unassailable majority of 62 Knesset seats. Netanyahu dismissed as “sour grapes gripes” accusations that his victory had been achieved by virtue of fake breaking news disseminated on Election Day by his disciples in the media, that the Shin Bet was “looking into” reports of a secret agreement between Kahol Lavan’s Yair Lapid and the Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi, which included endorsement of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, a “limited” Right of Return and a Palestinian flag on the Temple Mount.

The Shin Bet’s feeble and mysteriously delayed denial of the reports couldn’t stop masses of hitherto indifferent but now outraged Likud voters from flocking to the polls, courtesy of buses mysteriously ordered in advance by Netanyahu’s office.

In a special address to the nation to mark his victory, Netanyahu declared that his against-all-odds triumph was tantamount to total exoneration “by the only court that matters, the citizens of Israel.” Arrogant and angry, Netanyahu announced that his first mission was to “clean the stables, or, as my dear friend Donald Trump puts it, drain the swamp” to “expose and expunge” the “New Israel Fund-backed saboteurs who were undermining the state.”

Netanyahu announced his intention to introduce legislation that would eliminate the attorney general’s office and transfer his powers as chief prosecutor to the new State Attorney that Ohana had just appointed, who, the prime minister said, would be “both jurist and patriot, for a change”.

Netanyahu described himself for the umpteenth time, albeit in far starker terms, as the innocent victim of a “worldwide leftist conspiracy” with “tentacles in the justice system’s Holy of Holies.”

Netanyahu called on the new State Attorney – a low level prosecutor recommended by Sara Netanyahu – to review his three indictments for corruption as well as the pending prosecutions of his right-wing allies, including Interior Minister Arye Dery and former coalition whip David Bitan, “whose only sin is that they aren’t part of the left’s elites.”

The evening news broadcasts broke with the news of Mendelblit’s resignation, reportedly after Ohana threatened that the new State Attorney would revisit his role in the infamous Harpaz scandal, of which he had been cleared, and would then charge him with crimes, which would necessitate his dismissal in any event.

From there, the reports quickly moved to the Justice Ministry in East Jerusalem, where reporters breathlessly revealed that the new State Attorney had just signed a formal letter to the Jerusalem District Court informing it of the state’s decision to quash the indictments against Netanyahu.

The new chief prosecutor also announced his decision to close the files against Netanyahu’s cronies “for lack of public interest”. He proclaimed the establishment of an official commission of inquiry that would probe “the attempted coup” against “a prime minister revered by the people.”

The commission, he said, would recommend “harsh and immediate action” that should be taken against “the criminals” involved in the sinister plot.

Naturally, an unprecedented public storm erupted. Banner headlines portrayed the move as “the death of democracy”, three senior and courageous state prosecutors resigned in protest, 200 of Israel’s most prominent jurists signed a petition protesting the “destruction of the rule of law,” the opposition tabled a motion of no confidence that failed and the High Court of Justice declined to intervene.

Unconfirmed reports alleged that Netanyahu had privately warned the president of the Supreme Court that any other decision would compel him to declare “total war,” which would leave only scorched earth in its wake.

Following the path

Anyone who believes such a nightmare scenario is but a figment of a feverish imagination obviously hasn’t been following Trump’s behavior following his acquittal by the Republican majority in the Senate. Possessed by self-victimization and hell-bent on revenge against his perceived persecutors, Trump views his acquittal not as a warning sign, as Senator Susan Collins naively or disingenuously predicted, but as a license to kill. Netanyahu will follow in his path, if he can.

In a series of moves, each outrageous enough to shock the Washington establishment to its core, Trump fired EU envoy Gordon Sondland and the National Security Council’s Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for daring to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. He sacked Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, who also served at the National Security Council, for no other reason than to satisfy his lust for vengeance and to strike fear in the hearts of administration officials throughout the realm.

Trump then added insult to injury by lashing out at District of Columbia district attorneys for recommending that his former confidant and current convicted criminal Roger Stone be sentenced to 7-9 years in prison. He absolved Stone of his offenses, for which he had been convicted by a jury, by declaring that the crimes in question were committed by “the other side.” Trump’s fulminations were quickly translated by the Department of Justice into a formal petition to the court to ignore the D.C. attorneys’ recommendation and to let Stone off with a light sentence.

The Justice Department’s unabashed political intervention in an ongoing court proceeding drew attention to Attorney General William Barr, who is like Ohana but on steroids and with far greater authority. Barr has reportedly halted any and all pending investigations of Trump, his businesses and his organizations, and allegedly is personally directing his department’s efforts to find a factual basis for Trump’s allegations against Joe Biden, as well as his cockamamie conspiracy theory that Ukraine was behind “the hoax” of Russian intervention on his behalf in the 2016 elections.

On Thursday, Barr belatedly realized that his professional reputation would soon be tarnished beyond repair. If he didn’t stand up for his district attorneys when they were being maligned by the President for simply doing their job, he could also lose the confidence of his department. He lashed out at the President’s intervention, said he would not be bullied and received his first positive coverage in months in the mainstream media.

Trump’s open insurrection against the rule of law and his efforts to turn the Justice Department into a personal and political weapon shocked an American body politic supposedly inured to the president’s outrageousness. The national nightmare that Trump’s supposedly overwrought critics had warned about turned overnight into distressing reality. Rules had changed, boundaries were removed and any remaining red lines were crossed defiantly. The inconceivable would henceforth turn routine. Dystopia may be just around the corner.

But just as his acquittal had galvanized the president, the failure of the Democrats’ impeachment effort rendered Trump’s critics frustrated and demoralized. His vainglorious vendetta exposed the limitations of the U.S. Constitution and the impotence of the separation of powers when confronted by a president who denies any restrictions on his powers and has enslaved the Republican Party, sapped its spirit and trained it to do his every bidding, fair or foul. If Democrats weren’t dispirited enough, they are now burdened by the certainty that their defeat in the November elections means four more years of Trump’s demolition derby from which, as this week made clear, America might never recover.

The new anxieties fueled the Democrats’ growing frustrations with their sharply split party, which is wasting energies on the battle between moderates and radicals that would have better been focused on attacking Trump. Trump’s rampage against accepted norms and conventions accentuated the Democrats’ lack of a clear frontrunner who could reunite the party behind him. Some Democrat bigwigs are already concerned that the primaries will end with no single candidate collecting the number of delegates necessary for immediate confirmation by the Democratic National Convention, slated to convene in Milwaukee on July 13. An all-out battle royale at the convention could alienate wavering voters and keep them at home on Election Day, or worse.

Each of the candidates thought to be leading the pack after this week’s New Hampshire primaries comes with a serious handicap that could turn into a crippling Achilles heel: Bernie Sanders, who is rightly considered the current frontrunner, enjoys enthusiastic support from younger Democrats and, like the socialist agitator that he once was, relies on the biggest and best organization of all the Democratic contenders. But he is considered too radical, too old and, in the eyes of Trump’s fans, he might soon be tarred as too Jewish as well.

Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg is young, likable and eloquent but he lacks any federal or state experience whatsoever and is openly gay: It’s not completely clear that America has matured enough that his sexual orientation doesn’t emerge as a impassable obstacle. Rising star Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has won over fans with a quick wit and a sharp tongue, but she is still widely unknown to most American voters.

All three frontrunners, Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar, are handicapped by their relative anonymity among African-American voters or worse, by active resentment of their past records on issues of race. Nominating a candidate who has failed to make inroads into the black community, a critical part of the Democratic base, is likened by some to a well-aimed shot by the party at its own knees.

The two candidates initially thought of as most likely to triumph in the primaries, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, quickly lost their luster after their dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and are now fighting to keep their candidacies alive. Biden, the candidate with by far the most support from African-Americans, has been plagued by apprehensions about his age and concerns that despite Trump’s record of fabrications and distortions, there’s fire behind the smokescreen of Biden’s alleged Ukrainian corruption.

Warren, who is considered by many to be the most substantial candidate of all, can’t seem to shake off her image as a lecturing professor speaking over the heads of her constituents. Her supporters maintain that she is hampered by the hesitation of those convinced that the main reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 was her gender.

If Biden doesn’t recover in next Saturday’s Nevada caucuses or in the South Carolina primaries a week later, his candidacy could conceivably collapse even before the great showdown on Super Tuesday on March 3. If Biden, who is seen as a warm supporter of Israel despite his criticism of Netanyahu and his policies, is forced to exit the race, Buttigieg and Klobuchar will take his place as the preferred candidates of pro-Israel Democrats, along with Michael Bloomberg, should his massive investment in the campaign yield commensurate results on Super Tuesday.

Sanders, whose chances of beating Trump according to the polls are far better than conventional wisdom among experts and pundits, is the candidate most feared by Netanyahu and his right-wing partners and possibly by a majority of Israeli public opinion as well.

Netanyahu’s total identification with Trump and his policies, however, along with his tense relationship with Democrats has rendered the prime minister a rogue and villain in the eyes of most Democrats, including moderates and their leaders. A Democratic victory in November, no matter the candidate, would be a disaster for Netanyahu, for which Israel would pay the price.

If Netanyahu once again confounds expectations and ekes out another shock electoral victory, preventing a Democratic victory in November will become his personal and strategic ambition. Give Trump four more years, and not only will America change beyond recognition, so will Israel: Both will mutate into nearly identical Trumpistans. The outcome of the U.S. election in November is therefore no less critical to Israel’s future – if not more so – than its own voters’ decision in just 17 days.