On November 9, 2016 over 65 million Americans woke up and almost immediately became stunned, saddened, dismayed and in many cases angry. Against all odds a 70-year-old failed real estate baron, who's biggest claim to fame was hosting a second-rate TV reality show just became President of the United States. The fact that he lost the popular vote by over 3 million votes made it even harder to bear. But due to the quirks of the U.S. Constitution Donald Trump was indeed President having won the electoral college vote.
Immediately cries of foul were raised. How could this man, who had held no public office or ever run for elective office, have defeated a person who was a former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State? There had to be shenanigans somewhere.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate if Trump had indeed received outside help. Subsequently over seven of Trump's advisors have been convicted of charges ranging from lying under oath to obstruction of justice. All are facing prison. The investigation continues as to whether there was collusion between the Russian government, the Trump campaign and Trump himself.
Meanwhile Benjamin Netanyahu is also facing legal problems. On February 28th Israel's Attorney General Mandelblit filed indictments against Netanyahu on one count of bribery and two counts each of fraud and breach of trust. These legal troubles plaguing the Prime Minister parallel his political friend and ally, Donald Trump. While Trump has not been indicted many observers feel that will be forthcoming once Mueller's report is released. Especially since the U.S. Congress is now controlled by Democrats.
The Trump-Netanyahu Love Fest
Netanyahu, after up-and-down relationships with previous U.S administrations, seemed to have finally found a sympathetic U.S. leader who shares his overall world view. Trump followed up on his campaign promise to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, an act which angered not only the Palestinians but other countries throughout the world.
Trump has continually expressed support for Netanyahu, saying "He's done a great job as prime minister.(1) They also have a reliable, friendly line of communication between Ambassador Ron Dermer and Trump's son-in-law/advisor Jared Kushner. They agree on several issues, most importantly Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear program. Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. The Netanyahu government was steadfastly opposed to this agreement. Another area of likely agreement is Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Trump administration is unlikely to criticize future Israeli settlement activity within the existing areas. (2)
One area of possible discord is Syrian conflict. Russia plays an important role there and Trump has a close relationship with Vladmir Putin. Israel's objectives of countering Iran and Hezbollah influence there could become a source of friction. Netanyahu supports Trump's hardline against Iran, but the recent announcement by Trump of a withdrawal of American troops in Syria raises the possibility of Israel being left alone to combat its two foes there.
The Trumpenyahu Similarities
The similarities between the two men are remarkable. Both men lead increasingly dysfunctional democracies. As Netanyahu's troubles mount, he seems to be copying Trump's strategy of labeling any unsympathetic media reporting as "fake news". Both have a base of supporters who will follow them blindly. They and their supporters feel they are in an "us against them" war where it's a zero-sum game. They feel that they are cheated, deprived, ignored and discriminated against which leads to tribal politics.3
Furthermore, both are obsessed with the media. Trump tweets incessantly at all hours. He has labeled various news outlets as traitors. One of the charges against Netanyahu is that he illegally attempted to interfere with media coverage. Both are also independently wealthy. Forbes magazine placed Netanyahu fourth on a list of wealthiest Israeli politicians at $11 million. These are just some of the likenesses between the two men. As Shlomo Maital described it in the Jerusalem Post, "Trumpenyahu".4
There are differences. Netanyahu is arguably smarter than Trump. He's better educated, graduating from MIT with two degrees, architecture and management. In this he more resembles Obama.
The Challenge of How to Defeat Them
For their opponents the question remains how to defeat them. For Israelis it will be next month, for Americans November 2020. For Democrats in America the challenge is to focus on their message and nominating the best candidate to articulate it. The party took back the House of Representatives in 2018, a common occurrence in American political cycles. The party won on the messages of health care, raising the minimum wage, and infrastructure improvement.
In Israel the dynamic is different due to different political systems. The new Blue and White Party led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz seems poised for a good showing in the Knesset and could provide the next Prime Minister. One mistake they must not repeat is ignoring the Arab population in Israel. Arabs account for 20% of Israel's population and they participate as voters and candidates. Eighteen Arabs are members of the Knesset.5
Polls show that Trump is trailing, and Netanyahu is in a virtual tie with Gantz. Israel's Channel 12 poll shows the Blue and White center-left coalition at 61%, and the Likud right-wing coalition at 59%. A Dialog poll puts Netanyahu's disapproval rating at 48%. Further 17% of Likud voters in the last election say they will vote Blue and White this year.
For Trump the picture is hardly better. The latest RealClearPolitics and Pew Research polls have Trump at 53% and 59% disapproval ratings respectively. Trump has the luxury of time to change his numbers. A lot can happen in 20 months. One fear among some observers is that Trump will manufacture a crisis to influence the election.
One important thing for Israelis to remember is the lesson many Americans learned in 2016, the only poll that ultimately matters is the one held on election day.
- 1. Wilkinson and Tarnopolsky, March 01,2019, The Los Angeles Times, "How will Netanyahu's legal woes affect U.S.-Israeli Relations and the ,Peace Effort."
- 2. Donald Shapiro "What Does Trump Want from Netanyahu", THE ATLANTIC, February 14, 2017
- 3. Shlomo Maital, March 5, 2018, The Jerusalem Post, "The Striking Similarities between Trump and Netanyahu".
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Jessica Montell, "Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid Must Not Repeat Tzipi Livni's Mistake", Foreign Policy Magazine, March 4, 2019