Analysis

Netanyahu Can Only Envy Trump for Being Able to Fire FBI Director James Comey

Israel's prime minister is also under investigation for alleged misconduct, but unlike the U.S. president he can only rail against law enforcement

Trump and Netanyahu at a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., February  15, 2017.
Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Let’s start with a riddle: About which investigation was it said, “It’s been going on for nearly a year. ... Frankly, it’s kind of getting absurd. ... When are they going to let that go? ... There’s nothing there.”

Here’s a hint: Sarah.

Answer: The investigation into alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election to benefit Donald Trump, of course. The remarks were by Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a conservative Republican.

If Huckabee Sanders’ “nothing” comment sounds like something said by the Israeli friend of the U.S. president, it’s because Benjamin Netanyahu can only envy Trump’s defiance of any reasonable standard of decency, credibility and proper conduct.

What Trump did to FBI Director James Comey, Israel’s prime minister can only dream of doing to the head of the Israel Police investigations and intelligence division, Maj. Gen. Meni Yitzhaki — a dream, however, which was well on the way to coming true before it was foiled.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with James Comey, director of the FBI, at a reception at the White House in Washington, January 22, 2017.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Netanyahu appointed an attorney general who goes out of his way to go easy on him, Avichai Mendelblit; an “understanding” public security minister, Gilad Erdan; and a police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, whose unfamiliarity with the organization he was tapped to head makes more like a deputy police minister than the professional head of the police force. But Netanyahu has so far been blocked from putting the crime-fighting Lahav 433 unit and the investigations and intelligence division of the Israel Police in the hands of individuals who would stoop to closing the investigations against him and members of his family.

The FBI is like Lahav 433 and the Shin Bet security service combined, investigating domestic terror, serious crimes and high-level corruption. From the mid-1930s thtough the 1960s, the decades of Chicago gangsters and atom spies, the FBI had great prestige. Children dreamed of studying law, wearing a badge, strapping on a gun, being called “special agent” — everyone is special there — and catching an Al Capone or a Julius Rosenberg.

The G-man was a type of Superman, Clark Kent in a double-breasted suit, fedora and glasses who throws murderous thugs and corrupt governors into jail.

Then the legend unraveled and gossipy rumors became the conventional wisdom. J. Edgar Hoover was exposed, after his death and after 48 years of controlling the most explosive archive in Washington, as a dextrous user of the most valuable commodity in the city — power. Mouths and safes opened, documents were published and his actions in regard to presidents and senators (including those who moved from the second team to the first, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) were revealed to all. Here an investigation was silenced, there delayed until the storm, or an election, passed, favors in return for favors.

In the last 45 years, every FBI director was required to be the anti-Hoover, to be above all suspicion and doubt, despite the tangle of contradictions the Americans call checks and balances. He must be appointed by a politician (the president) with the agreement of another political appointee (the attorney general) and the approval of a majority of 100 other politicians (the U.S. Senate), and therefore be publicly subordinate to the elected officials. But he must serve as an impartial professional law official and a buffer between the elected officials, who are sometimes also being investigated, and the investigators.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a White House press briefing, May 10, 2017.
Susan Walsh/AP

Presidents who wanted to boast of their innocence, or who needed the rival party’s support in Congress, appointed as judges, U.S. attorneys or senior officials in the Attorney General’s Officials, experienced jurists who identified with the opposite political party. Obama the Democrat appointed Comey the Republican.

On average, Comey was doing OK, he was honest, but the average consisted of sharp swerves to the right and to the left. Like Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who closed the Netanyahus’ case in the Amedi affair and saved his honor with a reproachful but sterile public report, Comey last summer deep-sixed the criminal case against Hillary Clinton while rebuking her conduct.

He hastened to announce that a trove of classified emails had been found — in fact, they were merely duplications of the previous ones — instead of waiting to see the content. In the case of the Russian involvement Comey disagreed with the intelligence chiefs’ firm determination.

His maneuverings’ accumulative result, wrapped with pious agonizing, helped Trump break Clinton’s momentum and erode her advantage. The assumption that Comey made the difference between election loss and victory cannot be disputed. He will forever remain the cause, or excuse, for the shameful phenomenon of Trump’s presidency.

Trump also sounded as though he was striving toward such an average, by trying to appease Comey’s critics on both sides. But what counts here is the motive, not the result. The motive, in plain words, is to get rid of a nuisance and prove that indeed he, the president, can.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Police Chief Roni Alsheich, 2015.
Chaim Zach / GPO

Comey’s expression of remorse was his downfall, due to both its style and manner. If at least he hadn’t appeared on TV for so many hours and confirmed, albeit too late, that there is something — not personal, environmental, but bad and dark — in the Russian ties with the circle around Trump. (It was similar to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s announcement on the eve of the Knesset election that Netanyahu isn’t a suspect in the investigation into the goings-on in the prime minister’s residences.)

This is an intolerable sin in the eyes of the tweeting, firing-addicted viewer, who continues to cast himself in the role of Donald Trump.

It isn’t easy to crush a reputation, as Trump attempted to do, with obscene slanders of the CIA and countless other institutions and figures. Anyone who found himself surrounded by FBI agents in an underground station near the Russian Embassy in Washington, waving their badges and demanding an explanation of one’s conduct — but also quickly uttering an offhanded apology and breaking off contact — will testify that the experience leaves a different impression than meeting a local cop in a speed trap in a remote town.

Between the two brands, Trump and the FBI, the Americans won’t choose the president. But he’s trying, as the Russian case nears completion, to beat them, just like Netanyahu, who is denigrating the police probing into the suspicions against him. Each man with his own nothing.