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Twenty-one years ago, Benzion Netanyahu, a scholar of medieval history and the father of an Israeli Prime Minister serving his first term, relaxed with a reporter at his home on Haportzim Street, in West Jerusalem, and wondered aloud if his boy, who went by “Bibi,” was made of the right stuff. Benzion was an uncompromising ideologue, a maximalist, and a member of the Revisionist movement. (The Revisionist hymn included the line “the Jordan has two banks; this one is ours, the other one, too.”) He despised the liberal élites. They had stifled his academic career, he believed, and weakened the country with their prattle about making peace with the Palestinians. Supporters of the Labor Party, the dominant force in Israeli politics for decades, did not, in his mind, live in the real world. “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts,” he said that day.
Benzion died in 2012. He was a hundred and two. Any lingering worries he might have had that his son lacked the political cunning and the ideological mettle to put an end to the two-state expectations raised by the Oslo peace accords were misplaced. Benjamin Netanyahu, who won a fifth term last week, has proved himself shrewd, cynical, and willing to do and to say anything to survive in office.
Practicing a politics of division, he targets enemies in the press, the academy, and the courts. Increasingly, he finds his global allies in the ever-growing club of the Illiberal International, from the Sunni Arab leaders in his own region to Viktor Orbán, in Hungary; Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil; and Vladimir Putin, in Russia. He has determined that the world no longer cares very much about the Palestinians or about democratic niceties. He has marginalized the left––even the center-left. The “peace camp” that Benzion loathed now barely exists.
Netanyahu’s paramount interest, though, is self-interest. He has not only extinguished any pretense of coming to a settlement with the Palestinians, he now entertains the idea of annexing the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. By at least speaking the language of annexation, he could try to win the enduring support of the racists and the absolutists in a potential right-wing coalition, who might, in turn, quash the multiple corruption indictments that he faces. The political discussion in Jerusalem was once about trading land for peace; Netanyahu might now seek to trade the rule of law for annexation.
This is new. In the past, when Israeli Prime Ministers faced legal trouble, they tacked left to broaden their support both at home and abroad—as when, in 2005, Ariel Sharon evacuated Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. And American Presidents used to coax Netanyahu to observe limits. In 1998, Bill Clinton pushed him to make the Wye River deal, intended to reinvigorate the peace process, with the Palestinians. Under pressure from Barack Obama, Netanyahu delivered a speech at Bar-Ilan University, in 2009, in which he paid lip service to a two-state solution. That has all changed, especially now that he has found a like-minded protégé in Donald Trump.
Just as Netanyahu provided Trump instruction on the political possibilities of right-wing populism, Trump has provided Netanyahu with instruction on the possibilities of outrageous invective, voter suppression, and disdain for the law. Netanyahu now delights in the use of such phrases as “fake news.” Investigations into his financial adventures are “witch hunts.” To suppress the Arab vote in last week’s election, his supporters mounted more than a thousand cameras at polling places where Arab citizens ordinarily vote, the better to intimidate them. And, of course, both men like a wall. As Trump put it, “Walls work. Just ask Israel.” To which his proud mentor tweeted, “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”
Anshel Pfeffer, a reporter for Haaretz and the author of an astute biography of Netanyahu, writes that both men thrive on resentment and “have an uncanny ability to sense their rivals’ weak spots and sniff out their voters’ inner fears.” Netanyahu was initially wary of Trump, suspecting that an erratic dunce had entered the Oval Office. Over time, he was not necessarily dissuaded from that impression, but he was beyond enchanted when he realized that Trump was prepared to do whatever he asked.
On Trump’s first trip abroad, he went to Israel from Saudi Arabia and declared, “We just got back from the Middle East.” With a sense of fellow-feeling, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, told Trump, “The majority of the people of Israel, unlike the media, love us, so we tell them how you are great, and they love you.” Trump has given Netanyahu one long-desired prize after another. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and, in the midst of the Israeli election campaign, recognized that nation’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
For two years, meanwhile, Trump has talked about “a secret plan” to resolve the Israeli-Arab problem. The idea is that Jared Kushner, Trump’s Metternich, will somehow succeed where more than a century’s worth of diplomacy has failed. The plan is likely to call for enormous Palestinian concessions, which the Palestinians will almost certainly reject. That will allow Netanyahu to operate without constraint, and either continue to manage the status quo or make good on his intimations of annexation.
As the 2020 U.S. Presidential race begins to take shape––the Iowa caucuses are less than ten months away––it’s worth reflecting on the degree to which one leader can transform the political life of a country. It took Netanyahu many years—and the good fortune of Trump’s election, in 2016––to fulfill his father’s expectations, but Israel has become a different country under his rule.
Trump has become more himself with time. He has far less patience with advisers who try to rein him in or challenge his ugly and fantastical distortions of reality. His appointments grow worse, his resentments more inflamed, his policies more damaging. His reëlection would have a catastrophic effect on the rule of law, liberal democracy, the values of tolerance, and the baseline of decency in American life. We are seeing it all over the globe: the politics of fear and division exact an inestimable price. ♦
In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news.
THE ISSUE: Under the cloud of two controversies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Trump on Wednesday, February 15, to discuss U.S.-Israel relations.
“Netanyahu in particular wanted to concert strategy not just to push back on Iran in the region, but also to deal with that problematic nuclear deal.”
THE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Trump at first appeared as though it would be a great success, but two recent complications could cause disruption:
First, General Michael Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, resigned from his position two days before the meeting.
Flynn was Netanyahu’s natural partner in his campaign against Iran. General Flynn had already taken steps to “put Iran on notice.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to coordinate strategies on pushing back against Iran in the region, along with ways to address the Iran nuclear deal. That will be less possible with Flynn gone.
The second point of controversy surrounds President Trump’s public objection to recent Israeli settlement activity and his decision to appoint David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel.
The Friedman pick sent a green light to Netanyahu’s coalition partners to accelerate settlement activity and push for annexation of West Bank territory.
Instead of pushing back on Iran, President Trump pushed back on this settlement activity, declaring that he wanted to make peace Israeli-Palestinian peace and judging Israeli settlement activity unhelpful in that context.
After facing similar opposition from President Barack Obama for the past eight years, Netanyahu now must work with another U.S. President who wants to establish peace without settlements expansion.