WASHINGTON — Leading media outlets in the United States have been reporting in recent weeks on the growing similarities between the political and legal situations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as the notion that Trump is intervening in the Israeli election to help Netanyahu win another term.
These reports began even before Trump provided Netanyahu with what some American analysts described as an “election gift” by announcing Thursday that it was time to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
During Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel this week, for example, NBC News ran a report in which Netanyahu was described as “Mini-Trump.” Veteran foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell’s report was published under the headline: “Beset in Israel and facing a tough re-election, Netanyahu clings to Trump.”
Mitchell explained that “the two men are close, sharing strategy and political supporters, notably Las Vegas casino and Trump contributor Sheldon Adelson. There are also signs in this campaign that Netanyahu is modeling himself after Trump’s style — accusing the media of ‘fake news,’ and aligning himself with ultra-nationalist anti-Arab factions to energize his base. Whether becoming a ‘mini-Trump’ will be enough to win him a fifth term is an open question.”
A report on the same subject in the Washington Post Tuesday opened with several paragraphs that the average American reader might think were about Trump — but were actually, as became apparent later, about Netanyahu.
“He is accused of pandering to far-right elements previously considered beyond the pale even for many members of his own party, while sowing division to win votes. He has started his own internet broadcasts to circumvent traditional media outlets he brands ‘fake news,’ while remaining preoccupied over their coverage of him. Deeply concerned about leaks and disloyalty, he has tapped a team centered on family members to run his campaign.
“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was using Trump-style messaging and Trump-style tactics long before there was a President Trump. But as the longtime Israeli leader seeks a fifth term in elections next month, the similarities between the two polarizing figures — both under investigation for possible wrongdoing in what each has labeled a ‘witch hunt’ — are being thrown into ever starker relief.”
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The report also compared Netanyahu’s attacks on Israel’s law enforcement to Trump’s own attacks on the U.S. Department of Justice — both stemming from corruption investigations involving the two leaders and some of their closest aides.
The New York Times also ran a story on the subject last week, noting that “it’s hard to know if ‘witch hunt,’ the term both use to discredit the investigations clouding their administrations, is being thrown around more by Mr. Netanyahu in Hebrew or by Mr. Trump in the original English. Mr. Netanyahu does not bother to translate ‘fake news’ in his frequent social-media posts. Mr. Trump calls some news organizations ‘enemies of the people,’ while Mr. Netanyahu ran ads singling out Israeli journalists and vowing, ‘They will not decide’ the election.”
The report also noted that “the interplay achieved a kind of fun-house-mirror effect a week ago when Mr. Netanyahu tweeted about a segment of ‘Fox and Friends,’ Mr. Trump’s favorite program, in which an American commentator had dismissed the Israeli corruption case using talking points Mr. Netanyahu easily could have dictated. ‘Watch what they say in one of the most watched shows in the U.S. about the persecution against me,’ he told his followers.”
A recent segment on CNN earlier this month also compared Trump and Netanyahu’s reactions to the corruption investigations against them, under the headline “Two leaders, one message.”
Stories with a similar focus were also published in other newspapers and news sites, leading to concern within pro-Israel groups that don’t want the country to become affiliated with Trump, who remains deeply unpopular among at least half of all Americans.
For Israelis, the comparison is no surprise. But for many Americans, who are used to seeing Netanyahu’s polished messages in English and not his Trump-like statements in Hebrew, it could come as a surprise.
The recent coverage of the Trump-Netanyahu alliance is significant, because up until recently it was common to find this kind of coverage mostly in Jewish media outlets, not in national ones that reach tens of millions of Americans.
“I understand the prime minister’s considerations, whether it’s wanting to have a good relationship with Trump or maybe that this helps him politically,” said an official in one pro-Israel organization, who asked not to be named citing the sensitivity of the issue.
“The problem is that Trump is very controversial here in the United States, and among young people there is real hate toward him. So when the U.S. media keeps comparing the prime minister of Israel to Trump, it hurts our work among young people — Jewish and not Jewish.”
Alan Solow, who was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations from 2009-2011, told Haaretz: “The greatest strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship over the decades has been its bipartisan nature. Some of the things happening lately — with Trump using Israel in order to attack the Democrats, and Netanyahu seeming closer than ever to Trump — are not helpful.”
Solow, who had a senior role in Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and is considered close to the former president, added, “I’m not very concerned about the immediate future, because right now we have strong pro-Israeli leadership in both parties. But if this trend of politicization continues, we could face serious problems a few years from now."
Solow said that attempts to politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship could also hurt efforts to increase support for Israel among younger Americans.
At the same time, groups on the left are using the Trump-Netanyahu comparison to highlight their criticism of the Israeli prime minister. J Street began an online campaign this week comparing statements by Trump and Netanyahu, calling on Jewish American groups that often criticize Trump to treat Netanyahu the same way. And a campaign by MoveOn, calling on Democratic presidential nominees not to appear at the AIPAC Policy Conference next week, also uses the Netanyahu-Trump alliance as an argument.
But this criticism isn’t likely to deter Netanyahu from doubling down on Trump’s policies and style ahead of the election in Israel on April 9.
“This gives Netanyahu an advantage,” said Lt. Col. (ret.) Peter Lerner, a former IDF spokesperson for international media. Lerner added that the accumulation of visits, statements and gestures creates an impression that Trump is clearly helping Netanyahu. “There’s no doubt that the president of the United States, Donald Trump, is working for Netanyahu’s election campaign this week,” said Lerner.