The planet is suffering from a leadership deficit. It is hard to remember a time when so many of the leaders of the world’s most influential countries were so inept, corrupt, weak, malevolent or all of the above.
Worse, unlike past moments of misfortune in this respect - take Europe in 1939, for example - we lack the one or two strong leaders who might stand up to confront and counteract the defects of the others. Even worse, today’s cadre of defective statesmen and stateswomen are actually made worse by collaborations among one another in which both deficits and wrongs are compounded.
There are few examples of one bad leader making another bad leader even more egregiously awful as clear and odious as the mutually enabling, dysfunctional relationship of Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump.
But before you begin to shake your head in recognition of this fact, or add that the Vladimir Putins and Mohamed bin Salmans of this world are not helping matters, don’t let yourself off the hook. As the recent Israeli elections and current U.S. opinion polls show, voters are responsible for the mess we are in, empowering bad men and encouraging them to be their worst selves.
Netanyahu now enters a fifth term as prime minister because the people of Israel made it so. What is more, as Anshel Pfeffer pointed out in a recent Haaretz article, not only was Bibi re-elected despite his growing ever more extreme, despite his serial abuses of Palestinian rights and despite his legal troubles, he emerged not only undiminished by his misdeeds, but he may actually have been strengthened.
That’s because the recent election not only crushed any future role for his traditional opponents in the Labor Party, but it made a centrist party - that has been effectively mute on the core issue of the fate of the Palestinians - the second largest party in the Knesset.
In other words, Bibi was not only re-elected, but he has pulled the country to the right.
This would be ominous in any case. But it is made more deeply worrisome by the fact that President Trump and his team actively did all in their power to support Netanyahu - from their decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to, in the midst of the campaign, suddenly recognizing Israeli control of the Golan Heights and also by designating Iran’s Republican Guard as a terrorist organization.
The signals were clear: Trump not only supports Bibi, but he wants to advance the Netanyahu agenda - including, in a break with past U.S. presidents, moving away from pursuit of a two-state solution and even suggesting tacit approval of Netanyahu’s late-in-the-campaign announcement that if elected, he would proceed with annexing Palestinian territory.
That would all be bad enough in its own right, if Trump were simply motivated by an ideology he shared with Netanyahu and the Israeli right. But Trump has no ideology except himself. He is a Trumpian through and through. And that means what he seeks whenever he takes an action is something in return.
He has helped Bibi get re-elected and now he will expect Bibi to help him get re-elected. This is where the already bad can get much worse. Because Trump will want support and, ideally, victories that translate in his mind to value-added on the campaign trail.
First, as illustrated in a recent Trump speech before Jewish Republicans, Trump believes that Netanyahu is "their" prime minister. He thinks because he helped Bibi, Bibi will deliver the Jews for him. Never mind that close to 80 percent of American Jews do not support Trump. This will be an early expectation. It won’t, for reasons noted here, go well.
So then, Trump will seek "victories." One of these is likely to be the long-promised, heretofore nonexistent Jared Kushner Peace Plan for the Middle East.
Despite the fact that this plan has always been more fantasy than reality, due to the pressures of the upcoming U.S. election and the desire to distract from the 17 ongoing investigations into Trump’s wrong-doing, something will have to be cobbled together and announced. And based on early signs, it is certain to be terrible.
First, given the recent shift in Israeli politics and the predilections of Trump’s core team members, including his son-in-law Jared and his more-or-less Likudnik ambassador to Israel, the plan seems very likely to ignore the idea of a two-state solution or to punt it into the indefinite future. It is likely to be a plan, in short, for Netanyahu’s dream solution of a Jewish state that doesn’t give the Palestinians anything Israel does not want to give them.
Knowing Trump - and again, based on rumors - that, in all likelihood, means promising Palestinians the same kind of economic payday Trump has been offering North Korea. "Just go along with me and you’ll all be rich," is his pitch. That is, of course, wildly unrealistic, because it is a plan that’s trying to paper over much deeper problems by checks…unsecured checks, for that matter, that are likely to bounce.
In part, the deal will have some lift because it may garner the support of some in the Arab world who are more or less happy to throw the Palestinians under the bus, like Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. But he, too, is transactional and what he wants more than justice for Palestine is something else that both Bibi and Team Trump want: enhanced pressure on Iran.
And of course, this is where the bad Israeli-Palestinian deal is likely to be made much worse for the region, as ramping up tensions with Iran seems a sure thing prior to the U.S. 2020 elections - all the more so because Bibi is the devil on Trump’s shoulder, whispering provocations into his ear.
Quite apart from the awful consequences for the region, what will make all this even worse for Americans is that it might actually help Trump win re-election, just as Netanyahu did.
The Democrats are already at each other’s throats, and if they are undisciplined as the Israeli opposition was, it could produce a similar outcome. A political leader with serious legal troubles and a record of race-baiting and indifference to human rights abuses can get re-elected.
And if you think the next couple of years of Bibi and Trump winding each other up sounds bad, imagine giving them another six years of collectively, and collaboratively, doing their worst.
David Rothkopf is a foreign policy expert and author, host of the Deep State Radio podcast and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, LLC a media and advisory firm. His next book, on the national security threat posed by the Trump administration, is due out later this year. Twitter: @djrothkopf
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