How Trump’s Bumbling And Netanyahu’s Cunning Landed Them In The Same Place
It’s hard not to notice the similarities between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. Critics love to comment on the two men’s shared resume of defiant nationalism, open warfare with the press, testy relations with other Western leaders and voluble contempt for their liberal opposition.
There’s a crucial difference, of course: One of them is a political amateur with no apparent grasp of the craft of governing, while the other is a master politician and one of the most durable leaders in the democratic world.
What’s truly uncanny, though, is the way the two have fallen into parallel ruts as their political careers have come to be defined for them by their investigators. And as the two face potentially career-ending criminal investigations, we’re poised to find out just how big is the gap between Netanyahu’s cunningly maneuvered longevity and Trump’s oafish yet miraculously enduring success.
In terms of gravity, the suspicions against Netanyahu are laughably minor in comparison to those against Trump and his circle. Trump is at the center of a special prosecutor’s investigation into suspicions that his presidential campaign was complicit in the efforts of a hostile foreign power, namely Russia, to subvert America’s democratic electoral process. Netanyahu, by contrast, is the subject of two police investigations into suspicions of petty corruption and influence trading.
One Netanyahu probe involves receiving gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars gifts from wealthy friends, mainly cigars and champagne, though it’s unclear whether there was a quid pro quo that could constitute bribery. The other centers on a discussion between Netanyahu and a newspaper publisher, caught on tape, in which Netanyahu apparently offered to hinder a competing paper’s circulation in return for friendlier coverage. Nothing came of the offer and Netanyahu claims it wasn’t meant seriously.
There is another, more serious investigation that seems dangerously close to Netanyahu, though so far there’s no direct evidence implicating him. This case involves a multibillion-dollar Israeli purchase of three submarines and four patrol boats from a German shipbuilder, vessels Israel’s navy reportedly didn’t need or want, on a no-bid contract in return for kickbacks to Israeli officials and negotiators. At least 10 Israelis have been arrested so far over the scheme, including a former Netanyahu chief of staff, a former deputy head of his national security council and Netanyahu’s own personal attorney and cousin.
Whatever the differences between the two leaders’ legal files, there’s no ignoring the similar impact these proceedings are having on the two administrations. Both leaders have been described in recent months as haunted, tense and distracted by their legal threats — though it’s hard to know what a Trump presidency would look like without a Russia investigation hanging over it, since the probe began before he was elected. Both men spend significant energy denying any guilt. Both claim they’re victims of conspiracies by left-wing media and — with increasing and alarming vehemence — by a corrupt, liberal-dominated law-enforcement establishment.
Trump has from the beginning called the entire Russia affair a “hoax,” even rejecting the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus view that Russia hacked the election in the first place. His efforts to thwart the investigators have only deepened his legal troubles. It’s now widely feared that he’ll try to fire special prosecutor Robert Mueller. That would spark a constitutional crisis.
As for Netanyahu, his anxiety has been growing visibly since the spring as suspects have turned state’s witness and rumors mount that an indictment looms. One indictment reportedly has already been completed and merely awaits formal filing by the attorney general, in an unrelated case against his wife alleging mismanagement of the official residence. With nerves fraying, the prime minister and his allies have launched a verbal war against Israel’s national police, accusing the senior command of corruption and political conspiracies. Observers increasingly fear the attacks will weaken enforcement of the rule of law.
Coincidentally, both leaders’ crises came to a head of sorts at the same moment on the last weekend in October. For Trump, the climactic event was the filing of Mueller’s first indictments. They undercut the Trump camp’s claim that the prosecutor was on a fishing investigation looking for crimes that weren’t there. More serious was a guilty plea by onetime Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. It established as fact that there was at least some collaboration between the campaign and the Russian plotters. The only remaining question is how high up the chain the collusion went.
Netanyahu’s crisis, on the other hand, was not a sudden escalation of his legal jeopardy, but rather a startling counter-attack by his allies on Israel’s legal system. His top Knesset lieutenants are pressing for legislation to bar criminal investigations of a sitting prime minister. The initial draft excludes investigations that are already underway, so it wouldn’t protect Netanyahu from the cigar or newspaper probes. However, it would protect him if the submarine case began pointing his way.
The bill faces serious obstacles. The Knesset’s in-house lawyer says limiting prosecutors’ authority would require an amendment to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, no simple task. More challenging, two of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, the right-wing Jewish Home party and the centrist Kulanu, vow to oppose the measure, claiming it would put prime ministers above the law.
Under normal circumstances, this combination of legal and political obstacles would doom the bill. But Netanyahu’s legal situation is not normal, and neither is his allies’ response. His most powerful lieutenant, Likud party strongman and coalition floor whip David Bitan, is vowing to freeze all legislative activity until the prime ministerial immunity law moves forward. Netanyahu’s inner circle seems to believe the noose is tightening and it’s time to circle the wagons.
America and Israel share a sense, unique among the world’s democracies, of moral mission as nations founded for a higher purpose. As October closed they shared another, darker sense as democracies teetering on the brink while their leaders decided whether to bring down the house.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).