Judging by their eerily identical reactions to their strikingly similar predicaments, U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are leading parallel lives. Both have run afoul of the law. Both are fighting for their lives. Both have responded by discrediting their investigators and prosecutors, undermining the rule of law, conjuring sinister conspiracies and, ultimately, defying democracy itself.
To Israeli ears, Trump’s reactions to his Ukraine train wreck often sound like an untethered cover version of Netanyahu’s litanies against his imminent indictments. Political persecution? Check. Innocent victim? Check. Partisan prosecutors? Check. Witch-hunt? Check. Attempted “coup”? Check. Netanyahu’s been there and done that.
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Both leaders also seem similarly incapable of recognizing their own wrongdoings. Both are portraying their investigation and prosecution as an assault on their entire political camp. “It’s not me they’re after, it’s you!” Trump told his voters last week. It’s a line that Netanyahu has often used in the past.
Their responses are so similar that one is tempted to assume that Trump and Netanyahu are advising each other or reading from the same “How to get away with murder” spinoff playbook. Circumstantial evidence shows that Netanyahu, for one, has certainly been inspired by Trump’s no-holds-barred audacity. The prime minister’s willingness to flout norms, ignore traditions and upend Israeli democracy would have been inconceivable had Trump not set a precedent and shown him the way.
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There are three major divergences, however, in Trump and Netanyahu’s parallel paths. Despite his apparent willingness to torch the rule of law in order to avert prosecution, Netanyahu is a product of the system. For most of his career, he played by its rules, with occasional deviations. Notwithstanding his recent all-out rebellion against the establishment, there are solid grounds for assuming that Netanyahu will ultimately bow to its verdict.
Trump is a bird of a different feather altogether. Unlike Netanyahu, the U.S. president didn’t pay his dues while rising through the ranks, but came out of nowhere to capture the presidency. His 2016 election victory was an anti-establishment putsch in and of itself. Rather than adopt the presidential code of conduct honed by his 44 predecessors, Trump’s unorthodox ascent to power instilled in him a conviction that rules and regulations are meant for lesser mortals.
Unlike Netanyahu, there is no certainty that Trump would accept any adverse verdict, whether it comes from impeachment proceedings, a criminal trial or electoral defeat. The danger Trump poses to democracy and the rule of law is thus far more clear and present.
The second divergence is that while Netanyahu’s ambition to avert prosecution at all costs is as strong as ever, it was significantly reined in after the September 17 elections. The results regarding the makeup of the next government may have been inconclusive, but they dealt a mortal blow to Netanyahu’s wish to be given immunity while neutering the Supreme Court in the process. Given the inevitable failure of his current efforts to set up a new coalition, Netanyahu’s last remaining hope is to engineer new elections before the attorney general decides to charge him with corruption.
Trump, on the other hand, is still fully armed in his total war against his accusers. Netanyahu appointed his former adviser and cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit as attorney general out of a mistaken belief that he would go easy on him. Trump, on the other hand, has successfully suborned his own attorney general William Barr to serve his personal interests rather than the rule of law to which he swore allegiance. And unlike Netanyahu, Trump can rely on a sympathetic hearing from his conservative Supreme Court, if and when it is asked to intervene.
Unlike Netanyahu, Trump has no prior attachment or inherent allegiance to the system that catapulted him to the White House. Netanyahu has shown an uncanny ability to continue managing Israeli affairs with prudence while concurrently going berserk in his selfish efforts to escape the long arm of the law. Trump’s impulsive and erratic traits are evident in his overall policies no less than in his efforts to flout the law and trash its enforcers. Contrary to Netanyahu, Trump’s unhinged belligerence is no tactical ploy; it is a measure of the man himself.
All of this should lead to the conclusion that while Israel could finally be seeing the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that was Netanyahu’s last term in office, the United States is sliding down a slippery slope and, if it doesn’t stop, could soon go over a cliff. Unlike Israel, it could very well drag the entire world along with it.
The third divergence, however, should temper such apocalyptic predictions: The U.S. system of checks and balances may be sorely tested, but it remains resilient nonetheless. Israel’s Knesset has no independent authority to review the prime minister’s actions besides a vote of no-confidence, and, under Netanyahu, has turned into nothing more than a rubber stamp. The Democrats’ 2018 victory in the House of Representatives, however, created a strong bulwark against Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, as events of recent days have proven.
And while both Netanyahu and Trump have managed to subdue their parties and cast their leaders as accommodating toadies, the Likud party’s condition is terminal, while the GOP could still recover its lost dignity and independence. Israel’s proportional system, in which the central command of a political party reigns supreme, ensures Netanyahu’s continued domination of Likud, at least until he is forcibly removed from office.
Republican members of Congress, on the other hand, are more independent, at least theoretically, if only by virtue of their direct election. One can still hope against hope, therefore, that when push comes to shove and Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” are proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, enough Republican voters will turn their backs on the president and force their elected officials to do the right thing.
They can vote for impeachment, compel Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment or otherwise force Trump to face the music and resign. Thus, they can still atone for their abysmal collaboration with Trump’s worst tendencies by bringing America’s long national nightmare to an abrupt end, before it’s too late.