Analysis |

Why Benjamin Netanyahu Is a Slick Version of Donald Trump

Nonetheless, the GOP candidate’s harshest conservative critics remain starry-eyed groupies of Israel's prime minister.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Benjamin Netanyahu, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
Benjamin Netanyahu, Hillary Clinton and Donald TrumpCredit: Drew Angerer| Jewel Samad / AFP / Illustration Haaretz
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

While you were watching Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton duke it out at their third and thankfully final presidential debate in Las Vegas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was busy waging war against the greatest of Israel’s sworn enemies. Who do you think that might be? Iran? Hamas? Abbas? God forbid. It’s not even U.S. President Barack Obama, though Netanyahu has reportedly just described the remaining few months of the U.S. president who just gave Israel $38 billion as an existential threat to Jewish settlements, if not to Israel as a whole.

No, the lethal enemy that Netanyahu is devoting his energy, his resources and his political capital to defeat – you will know this already if you’ve been listening to Donald Trump – is the Israeli media. The spearhead of the vast conspiracy devoted to harming Netanyahu, defaming him and trying –futilely as it turns out – to defeat him at the polls.

The details of Netanyahu’s current campaign, which have captured main headlines in recent days, are very complex and not too important. Two years ago, Netanyahu initiated a shakeup of Israel’s state-owned media, which he detests, claiming that it needed to modernize itself and make itself more cost efficient. Now he’s trying to dismantle “The Corporation,” as it is known, that was set up then to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority that Netanyahu wanted to shut down, because it turns out that its new managers are not the yes-men he had intended them to be. They were appointed, behind his back, while he was busy dealing with Operation Defensive Shield, apparently by the same cabal that’s out to get him. So it’s time to take everything apart again to try a different tack, only now Netanyahu has become even more ambitious and wants to get even more media under his thumb.

The amount of time and energy that Netanyahu has devoted to combatting his foes and buttressing his allies in the media in recent years is truly mind-boggling. He has told his balking coalition partners that setting up – and then bringing down – The Corporation is the end all and be all of his tenure, presumably overshadowing the Iranian nuclear threat and “peace” with the Palestinians. Coming in the wake of the battle to protect Sheldon Adelson’s free Yisrael Hayom newspaper, which many credit as the main impetus for Netanyahu’s decision to bring down his own government in late 2014 and risk new elections, it is clear that Netanyahu seriously believes, or has dangerously deteriorated to the point that he seriously believes, that this imaginary “conspiracy” that is persecuting him is all too real and very, very dangerous.

But wait. Let’s go back for a moment to Obama and the settlements. The issue came up after Netanyahu reportedly warned settler leaders that if they don’t behave, Obama’s last few months in office could create an existential threat to the very existence of Jewish settlements in the territories. Not that that would necessarily be such a bad thing, some people might maintain, but it shows how totally addicted Netanyahu has become to A. Badmouthing Obama and B. Instilling fear and anger in his listeners, whoever they are. Which are two more hobbies that he shares with Trump.

If you’ve listened to Netanyahu over the past few years, you know that Obama is more or less Haman the Evil One, the Persian king’s aide-de-camp from the Book of Esther, who plotted to kill the Jews but was ultimately thwarted. Israeli leftists, on the other hand, small, depleted and despondent as they may be, are Netanyahu’s equivalent of Mexican rapists and murderers, who, when they aren’t ravaging American women are probably killing people in the streets. In Netanyahu’s world, a few B’Tselem activists here or Breaking the Silence speakers there are responsible for Israel’s bad image in the world, and not, god forbid, 50 years of occupation, denial of Palestinian rights and building Jewish settlements.

It’s the art of over-exaggeration, of taking isolated incidents and blowing them up until they become a phenomenon that can scare people out of their wits, which is just what both Trump and Netanyahu intend to do in the first place. Fear, first and foremost, is their favorite fuel.

And rigging the elections? Don’t even get me started. Remember the Arabs who were coming in buses to vote on Israeli Election Day – they’re like the “you know who” in Philadelphia or New York that Trump was accusing of manipulating the vote. In Netanyahu’s case, his “inner city” folk were aided and abetted by the V15 organization that Netanyahu and his people portrayed as the long arm of an international conspiracy that was aiming to dethrone him by underhanded methods. He even got a bipartisan panel of U.S. Senators to rebuke the State Department for giving money to V15, even though it did so before the group became politically involved. Israel's State Comptroller has now ruled that there was nothing wrong with V15’s actions, but hey, who cares, they’ve already filled their purpose. Just like WikiLeaks scandals, which, when viewed while taking long and deep breaths, don’t seem to amount to much more than a hill of beans.

Unlike Trump, Netanyahu has been careful to not cross the line into what may be seen as clear incitement to violence. So while he was depicting the Oslo Accords as a time bomb, its perpetrators as sticking a knife in Israel’s back and its approval by the Knesset as an illegitimate manipulation, he always made sure to add a tiny disclaimer that he was not encouraging violence, of course. But when Israel was rocked by violent right wing demonstrations in the summer of 1995, Netanyahu refused to issue a public call for them to stop. And when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, he washed his hands of any responsibility and has now even recast himself as a victim, second only to Rabin himself, having been maligned by the sordid and corrupt leftist press for supposedly inciting to violence. So evil.

Which brings us to the most prominent parallel trait of Trump and Netanyahu: their inflated sense of victimhood. They always feel sorry for themselves. They are always being hounded. Their deficiencies and shortcomings are always somewhere on the scale between exaggerations and fabrications, never true, never their responsibility. Trump’s sexual escapades are Netanyahu’s domestic transgressions. No matter that there have been countless and repeated allegations of corruption and mismanagement in Netanyahu’s private homes, most of them connected to his wife Sara and some amply documented by official police investigations, Netanyahu is never at fault. It’s all inventions and trumped up charges, excuse the expression, brought forth by malevolent witnesses looking for fame and fortune, concocted and financed by Netanyahu’s enemies. And then magnified by the media. And then perverted by the police. And then inflated and misunderstood by the courts. It’s always someone else, never Netanyahu himself. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Netanyahu is smarter, better-educated, better spoken, way more sophisticated and therefore ten times more effective and lethal than Trump, but at their core, they are birds of a feather, two of a kind. Which is ironic, given the fact that many of Trump’s harshest critics on the American conservative right, who have mercilessly lambasted the GOP candidate over the past few months, remain starry-eyed admirers of Netanyahu. The exact same behavior that they condemn in Trump in America is dismissed as leftist whining when it pertains to Netanyahu in Israel. Perhaps it’s Netanyahu’s silky tongue that gets them, that steely look he gets in his eyes, or possibly, from a distance, it’s hard for them to make out the wording on the label of the bottle of snake oil he’s selling.

The late prime minister Ariel Sharon summed it up succinctly, but in a different context. Remarking on how his positions had changed once he assumed office, Sharon famously cited a famous Israeli song: Things that you see from here, you don’t see from there. Indeed.

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