The Saturday night police dispersal of demonstrators outside Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem was unusually violent but hardly a coincidence or great surprise. After the prime minister incited against the protestors and the minister in charge Amir Ohana urged them to get tough, police commanders knew what was expected of them even without explicit instructions and ordered their troops to behave accordingly.
Like on other, increasingly prevalent occasions, the shocking outburst of amply recorded police violence seemed as if it was plagiarized directly from Donald Trump’s "Guide for Embattled Leaders with Authoritarian Tendencies." Trump’s behavior yesterday and today increasingly provides the most accurate instrument for forecasting Netanyahu’s actions tomorrow and the day after.
Netanyahu, after all, wasn’t the original copywriter for his vicious depiction of protestors as lawless anarchists and coronavirus disease spreaders, adjectives lifted word for word from Trump’s reactions to the wave of demonstrations that swept America following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in general and against the protests outside his White House residence in particular. Like Trump before him, Netanyahu feared being seen as a weakling who cowers in the face of the protests. He too concluded that violent clashes between police and demonstrators could turn the tables and serve him well.
Both leaders seek to leverage confrontations between mostly peaceful protestors and police officers spoiling for a fight to inflame their base and to buttress their strongman image. Both exploited the violent clashes to delegitimize the protests against them and to portray them as lawless efforts to sow mayhem and destabilize the regime. Both of them assume that ferocious melees between demonstrators and law officers would cast the former as seditious disrupters of the peace and themselves as staunch defenders of law and order.
Both Trump and Netanyahu carefully laid the ground for the violent clashes. Like Trump, the prime minister and his disciples goaded the police by directly and indirectly bemoaning their supposedly weak and ineffective response to the protests. Both sowed winds of suspicion and hostility in order to reap a whirlwind of violence and mutual accusations, which virtually guarantees that the next confrontation will be just as brutal, if not more so.
Like Trump, Netanyahu assumes correctly that public opinion will be split between those horrified by police brutality and those no less chagrined by what Netanyahu routinely describes as a leftist putsch in progress. Both leaders view the clashes as an instrument and an opportunity to sow division, polarize public opinion and reframe the protests against them as a culture war that pits feuding tribes one against the other.
Both believe that fanning the flames of mutual enmity and creating an atmosphere that civil war is just around the corner can overshadow the harsh criticism levelled against their statements, policies, failures and even alleged crimes. Both assume that a volatile public arena can ease their way to cementing their personal, authoritarian rule, at the expense of democracy and the rule of law.
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Netanyahu, of course, didn’t need Trump to master political martial arts such as self-victimization, endless incitement and fomenting suspicion and hate, which Netanyahu has excelled at since entering politics three and half decades ago. But Netanyahu, a hesitant and cautious politician by nature, drew inspiration from Trump’s brazen and mostly successful efforts to hijack the public and media agenda with an endless stream of brazen falsehoods and ludicrous provocations. He learned from Trump that truth is overrated, lies come cost-free and “fake news” can be disseminated with abandon, from his own mouth, his elder son’s scandalous tweets or via the burgeoning ranks of willing right-wing defamers and eager spreaders of falsehoods and lies, who still insist on being called “journalists”.
Netanyahu followed in Trump’s exact footsteps by responding to suspicions, allegations, incontrovertible reports of wrongdoing and even criminal charges by recklessly and relentlessly savaging the legal system, spreading false and malicious libels about its senior figures and replacing them whenever possible with disciplined lackeys and toadies who view the prime minister’s words, spoken and unspoken, as their sacred command.
To the bitter fruit of what Israelis term “Bibism,” Netanyahu has added the venom, belligerence, megalomania, anarchism and narcissism widely associated with what some Americans call “Trumpism.” The result is a poisonous mix that may seem tamer than Trump’s witchy brew but is no less toxic and potentially fatal in reality.
At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before Netanyahu is lauded by his fanatic fans as the pupil who out-mastered his teacher, inheriting his title as all-time world champion of distortion, defamation, incitement, fomenting violence and generally tearing his country apart in pursuit of his own ambitions.