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Netanyahu and Trump’s Success Won’t Presage End of the World

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President-elect Donald Trump.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President-elect Donald Trump.Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images, AFP, Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

The international mourning over the election of Donald Trump in America, the leftist scorn for Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to deny that he incited against Yitzhak Rabin before the latter’s murder in 1995, and the dismay in light of his comments about the media, makes one wonder why the Israeli public assigns so much importance to these two men.

The obvious answer is that they are the president-elect of the most powerful democracy on the planet and our prime minister. However, neither of them presents a genuine or revolutionary policy. Despite Trump’s outlandish personality and Netanyahu’s rhetorical skills, both are nothing more than a collection of clichés that reflect the mood of the public that elected them.

In the 19th century – and in contrast to Thomas Carlyle and his Great Man theory – Leo Tolstoy reached the conclusion that no significant historical event happens because the ruler ordered his subjects to act one way or another.

“The French soldiers went to kill and be killed at the battle of Borodino, not because of Napoleon’s orders but by their own volition,” the author wrote in “War and Peace.” He rejected the common claim of the time that the French army didn’t win the battle because Napoleon had a cold.

Tolstoy spoke about the “laws of history” and claimed that there was no denying them, just as there was no denying the law of nature.

After the horrors of World War II, it is certainly difficult to accept a deterministic position that minimizes the value of personal responsibility. However, Tolstoy did not reject freedom of choice and individual responsibility, from the military commander to the very last soldier, for their actions. Tolstoy believed that a historical event is the sum of the desires of its participants, and emphasized that every order is doomed to fail if those who are supposed to carry it out do not want to do so.

In his attacks on journalists, Netanyahu uses terminology that has been prevalent for years among right-wing organizations like Im Tirtzu and Israel Sheli (My Israel). These groups successfully sowed hate among the public – for example, by linking nonprofits like the New Israel Fund with attempts to boycott Israel – only because their comments resonated among people with rage in their hearts.

Trump’s control of the social networks is not magic or the result of a special talent. Rather, it is because his strumming on the strings of xenophobia and conservatism touched the exposed nerves of American society. Netanyahu’s standing on the balcony at Zion Square in Jerusalem during a right-wing political rally or his harsh statements were not sufficient to make Yigal Amir shoot Rabin.

This is not to say that Trump and Netanyahu are not responsible for their words or actions. However, a slightly wider perspective allows us to say that it is likely that their part in the swaying of the historical pendulum is not as significant as it seems. Since the dawn of the new millennium, this pendulum has swung in the opposite direction from the tolerance and globalization that flourished after World War II, especially after the dismantlement of the Eastern Bloc in the 1990s. Do dialectic laws stand behind this movement, or is it just the sum total of the desires of citizens around the world?

It is hard to say for sure. However, it is clear that it is no accident that liberal voices ended up in the political wilderness in Russia, Israel and now in the United States. This is not enough to conclude that we must resign ourselves to the situation and stop protesting, but recognize that we are witnessing major processes likely to help Democrats in the United States, the opposition in Russia and the left in Israel put themselves and their leaders in perspective.

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