Analysis

Why Netanyahu’s Election Campaign Is a Preview of Trump 2020

Team Trump will be avidly watching how the prime minister fares in the upcoming Israeli election, with both leaders facing potential criminal charges in the coming year

U.S. President Donald Trump during a rally in Michigan, April 28, 2018 / Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu at the December 24 news conference announcing elections on April 9, 2019.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg, Olivier Fitoussi

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launches his latest re-election bid, the circumstances may not be identical to those of U.S. President Donald Trump. However, they are similar enough for those who are beginning to strategize Trump’s 2020 run to keep a close eye on Netanyahu’s campaign.  

The basic difference between the two re-election efforts is structural: Officially, Israelis won’t be going to the polls on April 9 to cast their votes for or against Netanyahu. Israel’s parliamentary system doesn’t include direct elections for the country’s leader; the public votes for a party to lead the country, not a person. Additionally, Israel contains many right-wing parties, with Netanyahu’s Likud far from the “big tent” of conservatives that the Republican Party has traditionally been.   

But Netanyahu has led Likud for so long, and his dominance become so firmly entrenched, that the party’s success or failure will reveal whether the Israeli public is fed up with the man who has been in charge of the country for the past decade – so long, in fact, that young Israelis voting for the first time can barely remember a time when anyone else was prime minister.

Both Trump and Netanyahu thrive on and have a matching preference for strong authoritarian rule over messy democracy, a fondness for border walls and they play to their base on the immigration issue.

Both men rule their fiefdoms by fear and have successfully managed to tame, eliminate or intimidate all who have dared challenge them within their own party.

Both have transformed parties that in the recent past were headed by sticklers for procedure, and who stood by high-minded principles, into forums where the ends nearly always justify the means.

Both seem to have jettisoned reaching out to more centrist and moderate conservatives within their own parties, preferring instead to chase the loyal support of hard-core, right-wing populists.  

And both have made this choice for the same reason: The knowledge that they will need these die-hard loyalists around them to stand a chance of surviving possible criminal charges in the coming year(s).

The next elections in Israel and the United States will be historic and unprecedented tests as to whether voters will willingly choose a situation in which their country’s leader will have to juggle the demands of mounting a legal defense with the duties of steering the ship of state.  

Netanyahu called April’s snap election fully aware that indictments may be handed down against him soon, after the Israel Police recommended charging him in three separate cases involving bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The issue now is whether Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will announce his decision on whether to indict Netanyahu before or after the election. The PM, for his part, has already reportedly told colleagues that he has no intention of stepping down if he is indicted either before or after the election, or indeed if his case goes to trial.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit attending a state audit committee meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 3, 2018.
Emil Salman

In this regard, Trump must be jealous of the Israeli premier: If he could devise a way to hold his re-election campaign before the conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and its legal consequences, he would. On the other hand, unlike Netanyahu, he does not have to worry – at least for now – about right-wing leadership rivals spinning off and forming their own parties.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller departing after a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 21, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite,AP

If Trump does seek re-election in 2020 (he has already said he will), he will also be running under a legal cloud if the Mueller investigation progresses in the direction it appears to be headed – directly implicating the president himself in crimes concerning payoffs to alleged mistresses during the 2016 election campaign and cooperating with Russian efforts to subvert the presidential election.

And even if Trump heads into a campaign without a criminal case hanging over him, he may very well be in the midst of impeachment proceedings from Congress.

Both countries have faced similar situations in the recent past – but never to this extent: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stepped down from office in 2008 (ironically, following heavy pressure from, among others, Netanyahu), even before the police had recommended indicting him. The country watched a former prime minister face a criminal trial and be found guilty of corruption charges – but never a sitting prime minister, and certainly not one running in an election.

In the United States, Richard Nixon’s Watergate woes in the early 1970s and Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal in the late ’90s both unfolded during their second terms, when they were unable to run for re-election again. As a result, voter tolerance for allegations of criminality was never tested.

So far, Netanyahu and Trump seem to be using the same political playbook to defend themselves, doing their best to portray themselves as victims of a deep state plot. The two leaders have long characterized their political foes and the media as being in league against them.

As the cases against them mount, they have added law enforcement officials to the grand conspiracy. Netanyahu’s designated attack dog, Likud MK David Amsalem, has charged the police with “an attempted coup” against the prime minister and slammed the former police chief, Roni Alsheich, for his “evil, cruelty and ingratitude” after the most recent decision to recommend indicting the prime minister.

Netanyahu and Trump have both used the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the cases against themselves. The Israeli leader has called the legal establishment biased and skewed, and being guilty of predetermining the outcomes of investigations before they begin.

Those in the know say Netanyahu plans to run his campaign like a “small guerrilla operation” he himself will spearhead, with his trusted, social media-savvy son Yair Netanyahu by his side.

If, acting as his own campaign manager, Netanyahu succeeds in pulling off a resounding victory and securing a record fifth term in office, the Trump campaign team would surely love to bring him aboard to lend a hand.