April 24, 2017
By Dr. Alex Joffe*
The election of Donald Trump as US president has generated superficial comparisons with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But one key factor in both leaders’ success is a fragmented and polarized opposition that is unable to project alternative leaders or policies. The tone and manner of opposition politics are made more extreme by their own sense of entitlement, and are pushed further left by bullying from the elected leadership. Without civic education and new, more centrist leaders, American politics will continue to resemble that of Israel, to the detriment of effective democracy.
It is now routine to compare Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are unabashed “nationalists” (albeit of different sorts), both bluster and bully their opponents, and both share a dire outlook on the global situation. A closer look, of course, reveals them to have very little in common, except perhaps for their shared interest in living well. Where Trump is the scion of a hard-driving New York real estate mogul, Netanyahu is the scion of an intellectual dedicated to the Zionist cause. Trump never served in the military and came to politics late; Netanyahu was a decorated soldier effectively involved in politics from birth.
These comparisons are interesting, if unrevealing. But a critical element Trump and Netanyahu do share is that their opponents are weak and scattered. In each country, a position of strength provides ample room to execute policies, but it results in lopsided politics. Authoritarian temptations loom while opposition politics eschew cooperation in favor of “resistance” and radicalism.
The chaotic state of Israeli politics, not merely on the left but across the political spectrum, is a harbinger of what awaits America.
The weaknesses of the American Democratic and Israeli Labor parties are largely self-inflicted. Trump and Netanyahu are products of the deterioration of politics in both countries, not the causes. No one forced either party over the decades to move further and further left or to haughtily represent itself as the sole bastion of morality, even as each came to represent perverse alliances between the privileged and the aggrieved, at the expense of the middle and lower classes. And no one forced either party to run candidates like Hillary Clinton, uniquely corrupt and brittle, or Itzhak Herzog, weak and vacillating. In turn, electorates are under no obligation to settle for such candidates.
But here the common political style of Trump and Netanyahu also comes into play. They are bullying and dismissive of their critics and rivals and indulgent of allies; reliant on shadowy personal associates; addicted to deals and gambits; and both willing and able to go over the heads of experts and the media to speak directly to the voters in blunt and often fear-mongering terms, using rhetoric that appeals to the electorates’ lesser angels. Each is regularly (and absurdly) accused of being “fascist”; at worst, they are merely populists with occasional demagogic flourishes that provide useful cover for policies that range, for the most part, from the pragmatic to the timid. And each has the confounding ability to put aside the bluster on occasion and speak in measured, thoughtful tones. All this has helped keep the Israeli opposition fractured, and it may do so in the US as well.
Netanyahu has been prime minister for almost eight years, at the head of a coalition that has crept ever rightward. During that time, the opposition has repeatedly splintered. The leading figures of the Israeli opposition – Herzog, Shelly Yachimovich, Ami Ayalon, and others – are fractious, uncharismatic, and unlikely to catalyze the electorate. The opposition is united only by shared antipathy toward Netanyahu, scarcely a platform for a successful campaign or productive coalition-building.
The situation in the US is no more reassuring. The national Democratic Party has moved dramatically to the left, thanks to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and at the same time evaporated on the national and local levels. The root of the problem is that the party has devolved into an umbrella primarily representing public employees, finance/media/entertainment/technology conglomerates, and an assortment of minorities, from Latinos and blacks to ever-smaller demographics like the transgendered. The Democratic platform is open borders, anti-anti-Islamism, support for every conceivable type of non-military spending, and, of course, absolute and total opposition to Trump. Compromise is anathema. Worse yet, violent “resistance” in word and deed is increasingly valorized by opposition leaders.
In both countries, the media has long segmented itself into right and left, the latter becoming more shrill the further it is from power – witness the transformation of The New York Times into Haaretz. Impartiality in media, and increasingly politics, is regarded as quaintly antiquated, dereliction of duty, or criminal complicity. Again, neither Trump nor Netanyahu is a fascist, but their persistently labeling as such by their opponents erodes the meaning of the word. Crying wolf lowers democracy’s defenses. So, too, do repeated cries to “save democracy” from democratically elected leaders.
In short, opposition politics in both countries have, largely through their own devices and with a push from elected leaders, devolved into enraged and inarticulate defenses of the statist status quo. Deprived of the power they feel is their due, they continue to move steadily left. The Democratic National Committee has now elected as its head Tom Perez, former Justice Department official and Labor Secretary and a key player in Obama’s racial partitioning agenda. His deputy, Keith Ellison, is Muslim and a borderline socialist, an appointment designed to further the party’s identity politics and ideological direction.
Both countries also share a collapsing confidence in civilian authority and the elevation of military leaders to positions of political responsibility. The Trump administration’s appointment of three distinguished military officers, James Mattis, John Kelly, and H.R. McMaster, to senior positions is both reassuring and worrisome. They are decided improvements over Obama’s feckless and politicized appointments, but their presence suggests a dearth of civilian leadership that would inspire similar confidence. Israel is obviously far ahead of the US in this regard, but alas, its generals have advanced neither the tone nor the substance of its politics.
There are, to be sure, important differences. Israeli politics and media have been blood sports for generations. America’s have become so rapidly, although this is really a reversion to the vicious norms of 100-200 years ago. Israel emerged out of a socialist mindset while in the US, socialism may only now be regaining its popularity of the late 19th century.
Coarsening rhetoric from leaders, incoherence and anger from the opposition, and the elevation of military leaders to positions of civilian authority are unhealthy developments. Israel shows us where America is rapidly going. But Israel ultimately rallies around the imperative of collective survival. No such consensus exists regarding America’s global role and responsibilities. America’s political problems are global concerns.
The answer to both Trump and Netanyahu in the first instance is more and better civic education stressing foundational law and tradition. Without it, politics in both countries will get worse. In the US, renewed interest in teaching the Constitution offers glimmers of hope. An Israeli analogue that draws upon the Jewish tradition is easy to envision but difficult to put into operation.
Second, despite censure and ostracism, centrist voices in politics and broader society must speak up louder than ever before, demanding prudence, civility, and compromise – the opposite of the ideological politics demanded by left and right alike. Ironically, because of their perceived positions of strength and risk-averse natures, both Netanyahu and Trump might be well-positioned to contribute to a centrist realignment, if only inadvertently. Whether their political bases, and their own risk aversion, would permit this is another question.
Finally, new voices are desperately needed in politics. Hints of this are appearing in the US, where military veterans are being elected to office. But too many of both countries’ best and brightest eschew politics. Until civic engagement is reestablished as a social responsibility, politics will be dominated by the mediocre, incompetent, shrill, and demagogic. Neither Israel nor the US can afford this any longer.
*Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 450, April 24, 2017