Analysis |

Trump's Election Points to Netanyahu's Only Possible Successor

The Trump way of seeking power through loudmouthed invective has its practitioners in Israel, too, and the sports and culture minister is the one most likely to succeed using it.

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Israel's Culture Minister Miri Regev and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
Israel's Culture Minister Miri Regev and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.Credit: Moti Milrod, AP

For the second time in a matter of months, the West has had a disturbing surprise that contradicts everything that liberal, institutional and elitist forces believe and support. First came the Brexit vote, followed by the election of Donald Trump. It is a painful lesson for liberal forces here and abroad. We’ll get to that soon.

If I had to choose between the possibility that the pollsters totally failed and the possibility that voters don’t always tell pollsters the truth, I’ll go with the latter. Many U.S. voters did not respond honestly because they were uncomfortable saying they were voting for Trump. Not that polling is an exact science, but such a humiliating failure demands a different explanation.

It is true for Trump’s election, for Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and, in Israel, for the rise of the Shas party at the peak of the corruption trial of its chairman, Arye Dery. There are people who are uncomfortable saying for whom and for what they vote.

The discomfort increases when liberal forces in the media and politics become dedicated to brainwashing the masses against a person or an idea. The liberal forces that the traditional media lead clash with the new media, which no one leads. The idea that there are wise forces that know what is right, and that they have the means the and platforms to tell people what to do, has in recent years run up against masses who also have platforms and who don’t like being told what to think.

It is a very tricky trap for liberals. When they encounter problematic, racist, corrupt, populist forces and ideas, they attack in full force. What should they do, remain silent? Yet, the more they attack Trump, or Brexit, or Dery back in the day — for all the right reasons — the more they annoy people.

Miri Regev in the Knesset on October 8, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

They increase the pool of their rivals’ supporters, who don’t like hearing voices that are too right and too self-righteous. Moreover, they certainly don’t like it when these voices are elites favored by fate who hold positions of power in the political establishment, the media, business, academia and the justice system. This is true all the more so in Western societies, where inequality and globalization have grown as waves of immigrants have poured over the borders.

Hypocritical liberals

Liberals are seen as hypocrites, people who would not themselves choose to live in immigrant neighborhoods but are all for immigrants moving into other people’s neighborhoods. They support humanist ideas, but do not always behave in accordance with them. Even if they harbor racist or homophobic beliefs they would never express them, out of political correctness, but they are outraged when someone without filters, like Trump, does. He not only expresses them, he garners support and votes because he “tells it like it is.”

The shock fests surrounding Trump’s crude remarks or problematic sexual behavior can easily steamroller many people. Not everyone is built for this business. Look how such fests in Israel extinguished the political careers of Ori Orr, Silvan Shalom or Yinon Magal. But if you have stamina like Trump and the ability to deride the whole world and its wife — it only builds you up.

Trump spoke in his campaign repeatedly about the lack of stamina of his rival, Hillary Clinton. It presumably was doubly effective, allowing him to question her staying power while appropriating the trait for himself. Stamina and endurance are traits we want in our leaders. True, we would rather this stamina be demonstrated in strategic and significant situations than in racist comments and sexual harassment, but tens of millions of Americans who voted for Trump decided not to split hairs.

There is undoubtedly a through-line from Brexit to Trump’s election and perhaps to surprises to come in upcoming elections in Europe. It has to do with globalization, the financial and economic crisis that erupted in 2008, the power of social networks, the rise of populist forces and widening inequality. And so, we must ask, if these are global trends then what is in store for Israel?

There is no need to look for an Israeli Trump, because there isn’t one, not even close. We have no one who is a callous businessman with a filthy mouth, with zero experience in public service, who faces multiple accusations of sexual harassment, a reality-television star who spouts racism and is particularly thick-skinned. We may have a rapist president serving out a prison sentence, a xenophobic culture minister with a big mouth, a Knesset member who made money in the private sector who said “hell” on several occasions, a party chairman who was a pitchman for a bank and a television star, another MK who was involved in gambling ventures and pimping, and businessmen who built skyscrapers and went bankrupt, but there is no single person in Israel who did all these things.

On the other hand, we have a prime minister who cracked the code for winning more Knesset seats than any other party and to be elected three times in a row. Benjamin Netanyahu is no Trump, but they have more in common than the billionaire bankroller Sheldon Adelson. They are both elitist white men who are prepared to do a lot in order to win and are very skilled with the media, so they lead others astray and constitute a threat to the elites.

No doubt it is a huge skill to be elitist and hedonist and at the same time be perceived as an underdog and enemy of the elites. Trump does it with his money, his big mouth and his extravagant lifestyle. Netanyahu does it by affiliating with weaker groups (ultra-Orthodox and Mizrahi Jews), and by attacking and pitting groups against one another. (“The left forgot what it is to be Jews,” “they are a-f-r-a-i-d” and “Arabs are heading to the polls in droves.”) Netanyahu’s attacks on the media, which dared to publicize inquiries about him (Ilana Dayan on Channel 2 and Gidi Weitz and Nati Tucker in Haaretz), show that the strategy of aggressiveness and self-victimization aimed at Iran in his previous term has moved to local media. It also shows that anyone who despises this strategy cannot be prime minister here for the foreseeable future.

Bibi versus Barak

The Hadashot newspaper predicted in 1986 that one day Ehud Barak would face Benjamin Netanyahu in an election for prime minister. The forecast was right on target, and both were eventually elected prime minster. In those days, it apparently wasn’t too risky to bet on the handsome guy with the good hair from the Sayeret Matkal special ops force leading the country. A military career, then and perhaps now as well, played a very important role in crowning prime ministers.

Assuming that the Trump-Brexit phenomenon will persist and lead to the rise of additional populist forces in Europe, the bet on Netanyahu’s successor in Likud, in the right and perhaps as prime minister, will not be on the expected candidates such as Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Katz, Naftali Bennett or Moshe Ya’alon. They were not blessed with a genuine talent to incite, to provoke, to hate and to cause hatred.

Netanyahu has only one possible successor — Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev.

Who will oppose her from the center-left? Yair Lapid has the most potential, and he knows how to be a populist, but his skin appears to be thinner than hers. The shock she provokes in liberals only makes her stronger. He punches down, choosing slightly weaker victims such as Breaking the Silence after his battle against the Haredim failed. She will go farther, unless the liberals stop being shocked by her and making her stronger daily.

Yes, liberal forces are also we in the media. The media nurture the Regev phenomenon that the media fosters because she generates “action,” and clicks. It is difficult to resist the temptation, and ignore it, but the holy shock from her outbursts is a double-edged sword. It boosts short-term ratings, but it encourages her to take an even more extremist tack and to accumulate more power. It’s a thorny dilemma for anyone who is shocked by her while also profiting from the shock fests.