One of the tropes most commonly employed by detractors of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to compare him to Donald Trump. He had similarly easy-to-mock-hair to be sure. And there were legitimate parallels between the Brexit vote which Johnson was instrumental in promoting, and Trump’s election as President. They occurred within a few months of each other; and both were, in part, responses to populist anti-establishment and anti-immigration moods in the two countries.
For Israeli observers of British politics – and in particular, for British-Israeli politics junkies like me – there’s a more obvious comparison: Johnson and Benjamin Netanyahu. Like Bibi (and most unlike Trump) Johnson is both an avid reader, and a writer, of books. Both men enjoy reading history; both are not only admirers of Churchill, but have sought to depict themselves as Churchillian. And of course both men have quite the record of saying what is politically useful, rather than what is strictly true. (Trump’s prolific dishonesty is legendary of course, but in his case it doesn’t seem thought-through or cynical – often, his lies are so easily proven as such that it’s politically harmful to him. In Trump’s case, it’s less political cunning and more genuine psychological problem.)
And then of course is what connects all three men: the belief that their political survival is more important than either their party, or their country. One sentence in Andrew Neil’s New York Times piece comparing Trump and Johnson, applies perfectly to Netanyahu also – just replace the word “Britain’s” with “Israel’s”:
No other prime minister in the long history of Britain’s parliamentary democracy has been so prepared to sacrifice the governance of the nation to save his own skin.
Those of us who believe that Israeli politics has been toxified and its democracy harmed in an unprecedented way by Netanyahu, can only look with envy at how the Conservative Party has acted (albeit belatedly) to remove Johnson from office. Because of course, here is where the analogy hits a roadblock. The Likud will not act as the Conservative Party has. Defenders of Bibi could point to the fact that their man is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, while Boris will leave office after less than three years in the job. And that’s not an irrelevant difference for sure. But I would argue that far more important are the different political cultures and systems operating in the UK and Israel.
Culture first. The best way to exemplify this to apply the case of Netanyahu to Britain. Simply put, even though Britain, like Israel, has no written constitution, and no law specifically requiring a prime minister indicted on criminal charges to step down, it is simply inconceivable, impossible, that he would be able to remain in position. Until Boris, I could have said with certainty that the British prime minister in this situation would himself (or herself) resign. Even while insisting that the charges are spurious, they would nevertheless accept that the country comes first, and – a phrase with genuine political power in the UK – “do the decent thing”.
As I said, that was until Boris. Though my hunch is that even he would not stay in office were he facing three charges of corruption, he is undoubtedly dismissive of the conventions and mores of British politics in a way that no prime minister of the past century (at least) has been. But as we’ve seen, in the UK if the leader won’t step through the exit door of his own accord, the party will apply the necessary shove. And here we get to the difference in political systems.
While both countries are parliamentary democracies, and indeed the new State of Israel was greatly influenced by the ‘Westminster model’, the crucial difference lies in the way members of parliament are elected. In Israel they are part of a party list; voters cast ballots for the party and the people named on that party’s list become Members of Knesset, up to the number reflecting the percentage of the national vote that the party received. In the UK, voters vote not for a party, but for a person to represent their constituency (like a congressional district in the United States). Yes, that person is running on a party platform, but once elected to parliament they have a duty not just to their party and its leader, but to their constituents. So while cynical Likud MKs need only concern themselves with the desires of the Likud activists who decide who ends up on the party list and in what position, the Conservative MPs who have ended Johnson’s career had to think about the people who live in their constituencies – hardcore Tories yes, but also those who voted for them unenthusiastically, and even those did not vote for them but who they nevertheless represent in parliament.
Of course, in an ideal world, both Tory MPs and Likud MKs would be thinking, first and foremost, about the good of the country. But if that were the case, Johnson would probably have been removed six months ago; while Netanyahu would have been forced out a couple of years ago already, once he began leading the country into ruinous political deadlock, and it became unarguable that he was putting his own political survival above the needs of the state.
In the United States the Republican Party in Congress missed the opportunity to rid themselves of Trump by giving in to Likud-style cowardice and failing to vote to impeach him, even after the most impeachable actions of any US President in living memory. Nevertheless, as the January 6th Committee hearings reveal the full horror of his behavior, motivations and culpability, it does appear that he won’t be quite the shoo-in for the 2024 nomination as he once appeared.
In Israel meanwhile, Bibi remains beloved by a section of the population who, it seems, will forgive him anything, even being treated like idiots. And the Likud MKs will march lockstep behind him; representatives of a venerable party, once driven by the liberal-national values of Menachem Begin, now shriveled into a personality cult, driven by the whims, obsessions and neuroses of an increasingly desperate man.