Trump's Victory May Foreshadow Netanyahu's Demise

Netanyahu got the U.S. president he always wanted, but he should worry about the undercurrents that brought Trump to power The Israeli prime minister's behavior toward the media is reminiscent of shady regimes Why did Yair Lapid refuse to speak at the Rabin rally?

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An illustration showing Netanyahu jumping into Trump's arms as Putin smiles nearby.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman

For the 10-plus years of his rule, stretching on and off across two decades, Benjamin Netanyahu has had a dream: to work with a president from the Republican Party. He dreamed of a Republican being in the White House the way Diaspora Jews dreamed of Jerusalem over the millennia. He looked askance as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak enjoyed the unconcealed affection and election-campaign help of Bill Clinton.

Netanyahu alone, poor guy, never enjoyed that hour of splendor in the grass. In his first term as prime minister (1996-1999), the “Republican senator from Jerusalem” – the senior representative here of the American conservative, capitalist, right-wing party – had the misfortune to have Bill Clinton in the White House. Then, as a chilling and bitter main course, he’s had seven and half years of Barack Obama’s two terms as president.

But now, after Netanyahu had already come to terms with his fate and was preparing for another four years of a Democratic president who’s married to that guy from the 1990s, a sharp, experienced, smart woman who’s not fond of the prime minister and knows all his shticks and tricks – suddenly his dream has come true big-time, maybe even too big.

It’s not a traditional, mainstream Republican like Bush, Sr., or Bush, Jr., who can sometimes disappoint a client like him, that’s fallen to Netanyahu’s lot. It’s a Republican on steroids, a Godzilla-type Republican who, from his campaign rhetoric, at least, is looking like the most convenient president possible for the premier.

Seven-and-a-half lean years, years of maneuvering and quarreling and mutual eye-gouging, which came to a head with Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the eve of the ratification of the agreement with Iran, will come to an end in just 70 days.

It’s not that Netanyahu didn’t have his little pleasures. With his political acumen he was able to turn Obama into Israel’s enemy, an object of hate for most of the Israeli public, and to hitch a ride on his back to electoral victories. Obama was a burden but sometimes also an asset. When Netanyahu wanted to rebuff pressure by the settlers and by Likud’s right wing, he used “Obama” as an alibi or an excuse for every act that was committed or omitted. He didn’t hesitate to stick his nose into American politics. Now, with everything threatening to be simple and straightforward, like a knife in butter, he’s likely to be bored.

Come January 20, 2017, Netanyahu’s political and operational breathing space will ostensibly become bigger and more congenial. His hated rival, for whose defeat he worked indefatigably in 2012, will leave the White House, to be succeeded by a person who, according to all the signs, will be his new best friend. Along with Vladimir Putin, of course.

But Trump is also to some degree a riddle: unpredictable, frenetic, volatile, not committed to anyone or anything. His love affair with Putin worried Netanyahu over much of the past year. An alliance between the two presidents is likely to have inconvenient Middle Eastern repercussions. Netanyahu emerged calmer, as far as possible, from his meeting with Trump a few weeks ago in New York.

How unsurprising it is that the leaders in whose company Netanyahu feels most at home are cut from the same cloth: men, representatives of the old generation, dogmatic, conservative, vulgar, brutal in their political and personal behavior. Everything that Obama wasn’t and Hillary Clinton isn’t.

Their approach to the media is only one, albeit relevant, example. Putin arrests journalists, and sometimes “disappears” them. Trump incited wildly against the American media and insulted its representatives relentlessly, while making optimal use of them for his purposes. Remind you of anyone?

It’s likely that Donald Trump will be a lot more “pro-Israel” than Obama was – that is, more pro-Netanyahu and sympathetic to his right-wing government. Unless he suddenly changes his spots, Trump is not expected to bicker nonstop with the prime minister, to have his spokesperson fiercely condemn every announcement that dozens of new housing units are to be built in the settlements, or in general to prevent the right-wing Israeli government from implementing its agenda, which aims to torpedo any sustainable two-state agreement. Under Trump’s leadership in the election campaign, his party dissociated itself from the two-state vision of George W. Bush. It’s not mentioned in the Republican platform.

For Netanyahu there could be no better news. A perfect if belated present for him and for his wife, whose birthdays were recently celebrated in the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

Best-laid plans

After Netanyahu stops celebrating, he might want to take a few minutes and ponder what else Trump’s election means for him. The Americans elected as their president someone with zero experience in politics and statesmanship, with less than zero knowledge of foreign affairs and with an overabundance of ignorance and shallowness on every subject that demands depth and understanding.

They have crowned a person who lied shamelessly on his way to the White House, distorted facts and floated empty slogans on fateful issues. They preferred him to a mature, solid, suitable candidate whose only fault was that she’s old news. The voters flocked to Trump because they were desperate for change. Anything but more of the same. To them, Clinton stood for stagnation, continuity, weariness and the obnoxious Washington “bubble” that many are sick of. Trump picked up on that. He consciously decided to run wild, to play the bad boy. Every time the commentators, here or there, declared that he had gone too far and his fate was sealed – he grew stronger.

Does Netanyahu, too, see what Trump saw, only here? His recent behavior vis-a-vis the Israeli media is a perfect imitation of the Trump doctrine – inciting, fueling the flames, lying.

The process undergone by America should serve as a warning light for Netanyahu. In another two years, when an election is likely to be held, he’ll have served for 10 consecutive years as prime minister, all told for 13 years. He’ll be the old news, the elite, the veteran establishment. The aspiration for something new and fresh that will arise could spiral into a protest vote similar to what we saw this week in America, and lead to his downfall.

Under certain circumstances, it could be the featherweight Yair Lapid, a cardboard figure, who will be the one to spell Netanyahu's demise. Or one of the right-wing/centrist figures who are currently out of politics, if as a group they can get their act together.

Netanyahu is already dangerously close to a situation in which the collective will want to see him go home. This is something that surfaces in every one of the in-depth survey that the political entities conduct. The next time he asks for the voters’ trust, he’ll have a real problem.

The prime minister and his wife are perhaps planning to spend another five years in the official residence on Balfour Street and then move to the nearby President’s Residence for another seven years. But it’s far from certain that the Israeli electorate will cooperate with their plans from here to eternity.

Myths and ‘Fact’

The response by the Prime Minister’s Bureau to the investigative report on Netanyahu that was broadcast this week by Ilana Dayan’s “Fact” program on Channel 2 would not shame a ministry of propaganda in the darkest of regimes. A close perusal of the document – which Dayan herself read aloud in full over the length of six minutes – shows that only someone with a sick mind, and driven by hatred, could have come up with such a mountain of distortions or generated such a torrent of crass lies, half-truths and supposed “quotes” that were twisted beyond recognition, all of this adding up to a fiction of fraud and deceit aimed at misleading the public.

Almost every sentence in the document is at two or more removes from the truth. One example: When Dayan interviewed Obama, she said to him that “part of the problem” of his poor relations with Netanyahu was that he, Obama, found it difficult to cope with the fact that the prime minister had won the confidence of a majority of the Israeli public. But the author of the bureau’s document wrenched the words “part of the problem” from their context and refashioned them into a new sentence that’s attributed to Dayan, in order to tarnish her with allegations of bias, deceit and, worst sin of all: leftism. “The majority of the public in Israel chose Netanyahu for the position – that is part of the problem,” the document of response “quotes” Dayan as saying. Then it reaches the conclusion that “Dayan’s program this evening is no more than a political propaganda message against the prime minister and his wife Dayan’s enmity toward the prime minister is known, as is her opinion of his voters.”

Ilana Dayan is in fact the queen of the mainstream in the Israeli media: professional, fair, impartial. Her report was balanced and well-grounded. What she revealed is only the tip of the iceberg. Sara Netanyahu’s involvement in government affairs is immeasurably greater and more disturbing than what was conveyed on the program (in a tape recording) by the late Mossad chief Meir Dagan, or by Vered Sweid, former head of the Authority for the Advancement of Women, which is based in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The traumatic phone call with Sara that Sweid described tearfully was far more acerbic and humiliating than she chose to tell Dayan. When we, as children, used the sort of words uttered by the prime minister’s wife (the “refined European,” as will be recalled), our parents sent us to wash our mouths out with soap.

Netanyahu’s strategy now, and more potently in the next election, will be to make the media the new Iran/Hamas/left. Whoever doesn’t dance to the piper’s tune will be branded a leftist who’s out to topple the right-wing government. And journalists will not be alone in being potential targets: Moshe Ya’alon, Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Katz, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked have all already been inducted into the hall of fame on whose walls is inscribed, “They hooked up with the left to topple the right-wing government.” The words come not from background briefings but from official communiques issued by the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

All this didn’t start today or even last year. In 1998, as IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak was about to retire, surveys forecast that he stood a good chance of unseating Netanyahu if he were to enter politics. The latter instructed senior Likud figures to tell media figures in briefings that Shahak, was a “leftist.” Some of them did so, others declined. What’s changed since then? Today such instructions come from the Supreme Leader.

Two questions need to be asked in this connection. First, will the Israeli public not be sickened at some stage by the negative campaign that the prime minister is relentlessly conducting? He doesn’t have a single message of hope, optimism or accommodation. He’s a machine of vilifications, lies and spin. How much venom, loathing and abuse will the Israeli public be able to swallow before drawing the necessary conclusion?

And, second, by releasing this demon now, in high profile, on an almost daily basis – isn’t Netanyahu wearing out the only weapon left in his arsenal? Wasting the last of his ammunition prematurely? In another two years, the public will no longer be impressed by this leftist-leftist-leftist nonsense that targets anything that moves.

The shock and disgust that any reasonable person feels toward the prime minister’s response to the “Fact” report also left an impression on cabinet ministers, both from Likud and other parties. On the day after the broadcast they sought solace in phone calls. “What in the world do we do with him?” was the question asked time and again in the conversations. “He’s lost his sanity.” In those exact words. But don’t worry. They will continue to gripe and to taunt him behind his back, and with that it will end.

In their hearts, though, they know that by their cowardly silence they are accomplices to the disgrace. These are days that will be recalled as constituting an ignominous stain on the democratic image of enlightened, liberal Israel. It’s the prime minister who is leading the march, as in that symbolic funeral staged in Ra’anana during the period of the Oslo accord, with the famous coffin; but they’re following behind it, mute.

A rally marking the 21st anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination takes place at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on November 5, 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

Square dance

Rabin Square didn’t expect such a large turnout of demonstrators last Saturday night. Tens of thousands came to the memorial event for Yitzhak Rabin, which was hastily organized by the leaders of Zionist Union, MKs Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, after they learned that the groups that had arranged the event in the past couldn’t find the requisite funding his year. Political parties always have money.

Herzog and Livni spoke, but so did a number of right-wing figures. Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon was given a last-minute invitation to speak, but not before the leaders of Zionist Union implored her to behave properly, not to be provocative and, heaven forbid, not to mention the human rights organization B’Tselem. Anything but B’Tselem.

Yesh Atid’s MKs absented themselves. Their leader Yair Lapid’s repulsion at anything that smacks of leftism is well known. He’s not much different from Netanyahu in that basic impulse, although he’s not as verbally abusive (except toward human rights groups such as Breaking the Silence, which unleash the hidden Bibi within him). Lapid shakes off every particle of a left-wing image, and that serves his strategy well. But to stay away from a memorial gathering for Yitzhak Rabin so as to avoid sharing a stage with Herzog, Livni and Galon, his partners in the parliamentary opposition, was really one step too far, even by his cynical and hypocritical standards. Not one Knesset seat's worth of support would have been taken away from him if he had agreed to speak – and he knows how to speak – at the podium. He is so fearful of angering the Likud electorate that his response to the document drafted by the Prime Minister’s Bureau in response to Dayan’s “Fact” show was awkward and embarrassing: a brief, bland post rife with empty cliches that sounded like they came from a grammar school civics class.

Not all his party’s MKs applauded Lapid’s decision. There are no few left-wing figures there – Jacob Perry, Ofer Shelah, Yael German and others – who are walking about abashed and feeling bashed. In a meeting of Yesh Atid MKs in the Knesset on Monday, Lapid was asked why the party had not been represented in Rabin Square. He replied that Herzog had invited him not to speak, but only to come. If I’d been invited to speak, obviously I would have been there, Lapid told the MKs.

A few of them were uncomfortable with this version of events. It sounded weird: Galon would speak but not Lapid? The MKs sounded out colleagues from Zionist Union. I asked Herzog, but he, gentleman that he is, didn’t feel that it was appropriate to talk about a private conversation he’d had with Lapid.

Further inquiries among Zionist Union MKs revealed the following picture: Herzog met Lapid at midnight on Wednesday, in the Knesset. “Yair, we’re holding an assembly,” Herzog told him, “and I’d very much like you to participate.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Lapid said. He didn’t even bother to ask if he would be a speaker. Obviously he would have spoken, people in Herzog’s circle said this week – that was the intention, but the prince wouldn’t hear of it.

After Lapid declined, Livni approached Perry, a former Shin Bet security service chief who worked with Rabin, knew Rabin and was friendly with Rabin, so that it was only natural for him to represent Yesh Atid at the event. She invited him to speak. Perry and said he couldn’t make it, he was going to be up north. People in Zionist Union were taken aback. His demurral seemed like an order from on high, a presidential fiat.