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8 lessons Netanyahu can teach Trump

The US president-elect can learn a thing or two from the Israeli prime minister's leadership style
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting at the Knesset on January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting at the Knesset on January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

What will a Trump presidency look like? Unsurprisingly, no one really knows what this administration will promote and which appointments Trump will end up making. However, Trump’s temperament and the campaign he ran offer some decent clues on what’s to come. In that context, an interesting comparison can be made between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israel’s experience with a media-dogging, hate-mongering, power-hungry leader can perhaps help those opposed to Trump prepare for what’s to come in his first years in office. Israel and the US are different in many ways, but there’s no reason not to learn from each other’s experience and hopefully avoid each other’s mistakes. So – here are some interconnected insights from the Israeli experience:

1. The campaign never ends

Towards the end of these last elections, people just wanted it to end and things to go back to normal. Well guess what? The campaign has just begun. Netanyahu has not ceased his attack on the left (and some of the right) and his divisive statements for one minute since Israel’s 2015 election. These inciting remarks keep voters engaged and committed, ready for the next election or public debate. There is little electoral value to being presidential or unifying, especially in divided societies such as those of Israel and the US.

2. Survival as the main ideology

Over the past two elections, Netanyahu’s Likud party did not offer any written manifest or proposed any agenda. This is no news for Americans, who have seen Trump give vague or contradicting answers to many major issues throughout this last campaign. Netanyahu’s party preferred not to bind itself ideologically, and instead saw itself as a platform to rule from, permitting other coalition partners to shape the government’s agenda. US politics are very different, but the driving force might be the same. Whatever needs to be done to survive in power will be done. Ideology, in this context, is a risk factor that could bind Trump and limit him politically. But then again, Trump’s lies are much more blatant than those of Netanyahu, so maybe he really doesn’t care.

3. Zero accountability

I’ve read articles claiming that now the American right has full control, and they’ll have to own up to whatever happens. Sadly, the Israeli experience implies that’s not how things go. Netanyahu happily claims responsibility for anything and everything that goes right, of course, but has never owned up to any of the problems that arose during his 7 year rule. The housing crisis? Recently, Netanyahu blamed that on the previous government’s wrongdoings. Daily terror attacks and lack of personal security? That’s the leftist NGOs’ fault. Bad public transportation? The transportation minister recently blamed the opposition leader for that. Surprisingly, this has worked well for Netanyahu’s administration. It seems the public keeps electing him and blaming the left, which have not been in power since 2001, as well as the media, for all that is wrong with the country. Netanyahu suffered a steady decrease in approval rates but nevertheless won the elections, because the fear of the alternative was just a stronger factor when people went out to vote. Those hoping that the Trump administration will be made accountable for the consequences of its actions might be equally astonished by the somewhat counterintuitive effects his actions have on public opinion.

4. Find a “patsy”

Netanyahu’s current coalition is his third consecutive one, and each has included at least one leftist or center party. For Netanyahu, these parties had three major functions: In line with the previous point, they were blamed for anything that went wrong and Netanyahu’s inability to implement his own agenda (see below); They served to improve Israel’s public opinion in left-leaning countries and international institutions; and they were thrown out of the government whenever Netanyahu felt an election would benefit him, thus positioning him as more right-wing and ideological and setting the tone for the whole election. The US is very different in this respect, but the same system can be applied to Trump’s appointments and many Republican representatives whose ideas are not in line with Trump’s.

5. Populist (and doomed) legislation

Most bills put on the table by Israel’s lawmakers do not pass all necessary stages and become laws, but still gather quite a bit of publicity. Netanyahu’s coalition often takes advantage of this to put forward outrageous and undemocratic legislation (for example, a “death to terrorists” law or laws tailor-made to take away specific people’s citizenship). These laws, if passed, will probably not hold up in the Supreme Court, but they serve their purpose: they give their legislator some “good” press, they further incite and diminish the left – and they often allow Netanyahu’s coalition to blame the (leftist) courts and media for hampering their attempts to implement their ideologies and the “people’s wishes”. Trump has already started a similar trend, promising Clinton to “lock her up.” I would not be surprised if his inability to implement this and future unconstitutional ideas would be used to further evoke hatred towards persons, institutions, the media and the political left.

6. If you don’t try, you can’t fail

Netanyahu constantly complains that he never gets to fulfill his ideology (blaming a host of issues, commonly the Israeli system of government). Even his current coalition, which is very homogenous and arguably the most right-wing ever in Israel, does not try and pass legislation on major issues that are associated with the Israeli right. For example, they do not attempt to annex parts of the west bank to Israel, even though a majority of the coalition supports that. He never tries to fully implement his ideology and therefore it is never tested – and he can keep asking for more power to make it happen. Trump has already gone back on some of his pre-electoral promises and can easily blame parts of the Republican Party for not enabling him to act according to his ideology, consequently flaming the anger of his supporters, all the while maintaining himself as the only one who has solution to the addressed problem.

7. No competitors allowed

Netanyahu is famous for attacking not only his ideological rivals, but also people from his own party. Whenever one of his ministers enjoys a rise in popularity and challenges Netanyahu’s rule of his party, he commonly fires them from their position or intentionally undermines them to weaken their public support. Over the past 7 year, three of his top ministers have left their position under such circumstances. Trump is pretty new in power and so far there have been few signs of him challenging his top supporters or being challenged by them, but that’s definitely something to be on the lookout for.

8. “The media won’t tell you that”

And finally, the media. Americans know well how Trump, like Netanyahu, uses the right-wing’s rage again main-stream media to rally up votes. What is unclear at this point is how Trump as president will act towards the media. Netanyahu, for one, scarcely holds interviews or news conferences which are open for questions. At some point, he refrained from having a single interview or a Q&A over more than a year. He uses his Facebook to “communicate” with citizens, and often uses this stage to criticize the media (Ironically, he once shared an article from a well-known news website and had the audacity to add the text “here’s what the media won’t tell you”). He is never interviewed but constantly complains that the media will not let his voice be heard. During a pre-election interview blitz in 2015, he personally vetoed certain reporters, by whom he refused to be interviewed. As a self-appointed minister of communications (in charge of the media), he is highly involved in the appointment process of executives in almost all major media outlets. The most widespread newspaper in Israel acts as a voice for Netanyahu, its editor allegedly discussing the headlines in advance with Netanyahu. It is the only major Israeli newspaper handed out for free and is sponsored by the Trump campaign’s biggest supporter, Sheldon Adelson. Just last week, commenting on an article about Netanyahu’s think tank, the Prime Minister attacked one of Israel’s leading journalists, claiming she was an extreme-leftist who’s trying to topple his government and supports anti-Zionist movements. Like in many other cases, this was simply a spin to keep people talking about the prime minister’s comment and not the article itself. It would be interesting to see which of these methods, if any, will be employed by the Trump administration and how the American media will react.

The American system is very different from the Israeli one, and in many ways has better checks and balances which would complicate some of the aforementioned techniques used by Netanyahu’s administration or render them unuseful. Still, given the similarities between these two personas and especially the campaigns they led, we might see striking similarities over the next few months. Having some idea of what might be ahead could be extremely useful or – at the very least – might help prepare the American people for the dark times ahead.

About the Author
Eitan Schechtman-Drayman is a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University.
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