Trump's Israeli Twin

After years of being fed hate and incitement, the Republican and Likud party bases rewarded cheerleaders Trump and Netanyahu over the bloodied remains of their parties' former values.

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, February 10, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, February 10, 2016.Credit: Olivieh Fitoussi
vered kellner
Vered Kellner

In the history of Israeli politics there is a special place reserved for a tragicomic episode that occurred in 1997. A year-and-a-half after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had won the premiership for the first time, many in his Likud party wanted to do away with party primaries and go back to the old method of having the party's Central Committee control everything. Limor Livnat, then communications minister, wanted the primaries to continue. She took the podium during a party conference and delivered a heartrending address. 

“For what did we seek and win the public’s trust 17 months ago?” she asked with typical pathos. “Did we want to head the government to make me a job? So that MKs could kiss up to Central Committee members? To arrange jobs for someone else?” And the crowd, made up of party delegates, answered her with one voice: “Yes!”

That event was echoing in my head over the past few weeks as I watched Donald Trump achieve goal after goal, leaving Republican party barons stunned by the sewage overwhelming them. From Mitt Romney to John McCain, good and decent folk issued dramatic calls to stop the bully who had stolen the party from them. For a few moments I almost felt sorry for them. They’re standing in the playground near the sandbox, staring at the punk who grabbed the toy they'd brought from home, and were wondering if they should say anything, knowing that any sign of weakness would make them an immediate target for elimination.

You may ask, what does this bloody reality show have to do with Limor Livnat? The answer lies in the Israeli political map as it has looked over the past few years, the one with Bibi at the helm and Habayit Hayehudi at the wheel. If you like, the Israeli leadership of 2016 is the coming attractions of the Republican party. It’s a rare glimpse into the future that also carries an unpleasant lesson about the past.

Livnat had been a central member of the Likud’s privileged and influential coterie that was half-admiringly, half-mockingly dubbed “the princes.” The princes were the sons and daughters of the “fighting family,” the group that provided the leaders of the Revisionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which had battled the Labor Party over the character of Zionism, rejecting the socialist values and relatively conciliatory diplomatic positions embraced by the country’s founders. 

The Labor Party had shoved the Revisionists to the margins, so their descendants eventually joined the Likud and tried to restore their parents’ honor. Aside from Livnat, they included Benny Begin (former PM Menachem Begin's son), Dan Meridor, Tzipi Livni, current President Reuven Rivlin and in some respects Netanyahu himself.

Like good conservatives, the princes got a good education and carefully observed the rules of etiquette. Jabotinsky, the founding father, even gave this behavior a name: hadar – splendor or majesty. It was a shell of respectability and integrity meant to envelope the conservative values they held: patriotism without racism, tradition without fundamentalism, unequivocal support for the free market seasoned with a pinch of compassion. It’s enough to remember how MK Benny Begin insisted on giving up an official vehicle and continued to take the bus to work to understand where this was meant to lead. A kind of benevolent and enlightened colonialism where Israel built settlements and pushed out the Palestinians from their lands, but not forgetting to say 'thank-you'.

But as Livnat learned on that bitter day in 1997, one didn’t have to dig too deep to crack the veneer of Jabotinskian splendor in order to reveal the volcano of uninhibited emotions of the masses. 

Were we elected to arrange jobs? she asked.

You bet! They answered. 

As president, Rivlin has learned a similar lesson. All his years as one of the most hawkish spokesmen for the nationalist camp did not stop him from becoming a punching bag for the radical (and even the traditional) right, simply because he condemned blatant discrimination against Arab citizens or open displays of racism. The thin facade of Jabotinskian splendor melted away in a hurry and was replaced by curses and threats on his life.

Now the Republican establishment is learning what Likud veterans have already managed to forget – that the hate and incitement that trickles down over the years is liable to rear up and bite you.

In Israel the princes were forced to yield the leadership of the right. As time went on, the decorum of the princes was perceived as an expression of weakness; they were considered old-school wimps. They were replaced by a reinvented Netanyahu who, like Trump, has mastered the art of divide, spark a fight, and conquer. From “The left has forgotten was it means to be Jewish,” that he whispered to Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie in 1997, to “The rule of the right is in danger, Arab voters are flocking to the polls in droves,” on election day.

The masks have been removed. As in “Where the Wild Things Are,” Netanyahu, Likud and Habayit Hayehudi are busy now with the wild rumpus. The cultural establishment? Pow! The rule of law? Slam! Human rights organizations? Pow-slam!

If Fox News and the Republican establishment are asking themselves what toxic fumes carried Trump to their party’s candidacy so quickly, they ought to look in the mirror. They should remember the deliberate battering of the Congress they led with so many bipartisan bills just to deny the Obama administration any sort of achievement. Let them conjure up the suspicion and hatred against immigrants and foreigners and their deep scorn for those who have to rely on government largesse in order to survive.

The late historian George Mosse spoke at length about the glitch that the European Enlightenment harbored, particularly in Germany, where not everyone was deemed worthy of the full range of freedoms. It’s true that the movement’s vision offered social mobility to those who were not born into Junker families, but it wasn’t unconditional.

Along with its declared openness, the Enlightenment also drew a very specific model of the worthy person. It wanted its citizens to be bourgeois, educated and models of health; it wanted men to be masculine and women, feminine. On the other side of this stereotype were those deemed outsiders who did not meet these definitions, including Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and the mentally ill – all those groups that, decades later, would be marked by the Nazis as enemies of society and candidates for extermination.

The preparatory work by the leaders of the German Enlightenment, said Mosse, which marked these groups as inferior outsiders, paved the way for their subsequent annihilation. It seems that one cannot forever walk the tightrope between respectability and incitement without someone at some point cutting the rope and sweeping the jackpot.

Vered Kellner is a journalist who has worked in Israel for publications including Kol Ha'ir, Maariv and Globes and now lives in New York.