If ISIS Wills It, Trump Can Still Be President, as Israelis Well Know

No More Fear? Hardly. Sustained terror attacks, such as those that brought Netanyahu to power, can upend the U.S. presidential race.

Donald Trump at a rally at Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, June 15, 2016.
John Bazemore, AP

If you think the prospects of Donald Trump of being elected president seem dim right now, consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s situation in January 1996. He was widely viewed as bearing some responsibility for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He was trailing the old-new Prime Minister Shimon Peres by over 30 points. And anyone who tried to claim Netanyahu could still win the upcoming elections was gently advised to seek psychological help. 

But five months, which was the interval before the next Israeli elections then as well as the next U.S. elections now, can be a very long time. People have short memories and even shorter attention spans, especially when they are pummeled by a series of horrendous events. Conventional wisdom can quickly evolve into collective delusion. Five months after his future was supposedly behind him, Netanyahu scored an astounding victory that still ranks as the greatest Israeli political upset of all time. 

Many factors contributed to this dramatic reversal: Netanyahu was young and fresh, Peres was old(er) and stale. Netanyahu was made for television, Peres matured before it even existed. Netanyahu channeled the simmering resentment of Israeli minorities; Peres represented the myopic smugness of the country’s elites. Netanyahu was skeptical of Yasser Arafat and the Oslo Accords, Peres was convinced they were part of a “New Middle East.” And so on.

Researchers have argued about the relative importance of these factors and others, including Peres’ decision to launch Operation Grapes of Wrath, which soured Israeli-Arab voters and kept many of them away from the polls, and the blatantly ethnocentric appeal of the “Netanyahu is good for the Jews” campaign. But everyone agrees that Netanyahu would have never have received the extra oomph that gave him a razor-thin majority of 30,000 votes were it not for the wave of terror bombings unleashed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad at the height of the 1996 election campaign.

Shimon Peres, then-prime minister, talking to soldiers during Operation Grapes of Wrath in southern Lebanon, 1996.
Ofer Yizhar

The prime incentive for terror onslaught was revenge and retaliation for the targeted killing of Hamas’ fabled “engineer,” Yahiya Ayash, in January. But did Hamas also seek to overthrow Labor and install Netanyahu in his stead? That remains unclear, just as it is an open question whether the Islamic State group is actively seeking a Trump victory or is simply bent on killing innocent Americans as always.

In April 1996, then head of IDF Military Intelligence (and recently deposed Defense Minister) Moshe Ya'alon said at a controversial news conference that Iran had orchestrated the attacks in order to replace a peace-seeking government with a peace-opposing one. Whether it did or it didn’t, that was certainly the outcome.

The atrocities of 1996 were not the first Palestinian suicide bombings to take place in the wake of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In October 1994, the bombing of Tel Aviv’s number 5 bus killed 22 people and shocked the nation. It was the worst bus bombing on record; it took place on Tel Aviv’s iconic Dizengoff Street and it was all captured on camera, in gruesome detail, and broadcast that evening on prime-time TV.

Netanyahu infamously came to the scene of the carnage and blamed Yitzhak Rabin personally for the outrage, which will probably sound familiar to you. He did the same thing three months later, even more explicitly, when a double suicide attack by Islamic Jihad killed 22 soldiers near Netanya.

A row of election posters in Tel Aviv showing Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, May 13, 1996.
AP

Journalists and pundits were just as outraged at Netanyahu’s behavior then as they are appalled by similar assertions made by Trump now. But the young and brash Likud leader was gaining in the polls, so he persisted.

But then there was a lull in the terror campaign. The IDF had escalated its counterterrorism operations, Arafat and the PLO temporarily bowed to U.S. pressure and cracked down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the few suicide bombings that did take place – at Kfar Darom, Ramat Gan and Jerusalem – were horrid enough, but did not entail casualties in the double digits as those before.

In September 1995, the Oslo Interim Agreement was signed in Washington. Six weeks later, Rabin was dead and Netanyahu was discredited. He was convinced that his political ambitions had been thwarted. His incitement against Rabin had come back to haunt him and, it was thought, to bury his political career as well.

But the Dizengoff and Netanya bombings had left deep scars in the Israeli psyche, which were only superficially submerged underneath the tragedy of Rabin’s assassination. On February 25, 1996, the trauma returned in full force when a suicide bomber struck bus number 18 in central Jerusalem, killing 26. Just a few days later, another bus number 18 exploded in Jerusalem, killing 19. The following day, when Israelis were celebrating Purim, a suicide bomber detonated a 20-kilogram explosive device laced with nails and shrapnel just outside Tel Aviv’s central mall at Dizengoff Center, killing 13, many of them teenagers off from school.

Netanyahu was much more restrained now, in the wake of Rabin’s killing, but he nonetheless laid the blame squarely on Peres and on his failed peace efforts. He didn’t need to lash out, anyway: the horrific images from the terror-stricken streets sparked anxiety and shifted public sentiments all by themselves.

By now, Peres’ lead in the polls was approaching single digits, but observers and experts continued to portray his victory as a foregone conclusion. They failed to appreciate the intensity of the fear and anger that had gripped Israel, which smothered any lingering resentment that undecided voters may have had of Netanyahu’s previous incitement.

The understandable gut reaction of much of the public was to blame the government for the carnage that had occurred under its watch, and to pin their hopes on the only available alternative. Any alternative. And no one else was there, besides Netanyahu.

All of which should serve as a warning that while Trump’s outrageously obtuse and insanely ignorant responses to last week’s mass shooting in Orlando have diminished him in the eyes of public opinion in general and Republicans in particular, this does not necessarily mean that either he or they will react in the same way if, God forbid, there is another terrorist incident in the coming few weeks. And then another; and then another. 

It’s far from clear if ISIS is capable of ordering such attacks, as Hamas did 20 years ago. But if it does, and if it will, the effect on public opinion will hardly be more of the same.

At a certain point in time, quite early in fact, under the weight of a relentless terror campaign that repeatedly yields hitherto-unthinkable outrages, reason evaporates and patience gives way. They are replaced by anxiety, anger and an undeniable urge to strike back. Americans know these feelings well, because most of them lived through 9/11.

The harsh backlash that Trump is facing after Orlando is a function of the fact that terror attacks with Islamic connotations have fortunately been few and far between in recent years, relatively speaking. The public manages to recover from the after-effects of the previous horrors before having to handle those of the next. San Bernardino was over six months ago, Chattanooga five months before that, Fort Hood six years prior. 

But imagine another attack in which scores are killed taking place next week rather than next year. Imagine a terror attack in which 1,000 people are dead, which is the relative proportion of the Israeli casualties of the February 1996 number 5 bus bombing to the U.S. population. And then another, in which 500 people die.

By that time, Trump’s proposals to ban entry of Muslims, to racially profile them and to force them to collaborate with authorities will be deemed too tame and too politically correct. No doubt he will come up with far more strident and incendiary and divisive demands instead. And Hillary Clinton, responsible statesperson that she is, will be unable to match him.

So it is premature to declare “No More Fear” as Michael Tomasky did on Sunday in the Review Section of The New York Times. Scaremongering isn’t obsolete, as he asserts: Given enough time and ample opportunities, it could make a spectacular comeback. It’s true that Trump has mishandled the political opportunity he was given after Orlando. But it’s also true that one isolated terror attack, especially one with complex circumstances such as Orlando, is not enough to create tectonic shifts in public opinion. 

But a series of seemingly unstoppable attacks, each more horrific than the other, which makes the government seem utterly impotent and casts its alternative as the only hope left? That cannot only bring someone like Trump to power; it can keep him and his ideology there for decades. If you have any doubts, just ask any Israeli.