Bibi and The Donald

January 28th, 2019

It is hard, these days, to miss the striking similarities between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and President Donald “The Donald” Trump.
It goes well beyond their nicknames.
Both of these embattled leaders are facing multiple investigations, both have launched relentless assaults on the media, both use the megaphones of their offices to push a nationalist, autocratic approach to power and both, of course, are running for re-election, Bibi in April and The Donald, presumably, in 2020.
Bibi is currently under the Israeli state prosecutor’s microscope; The Donald is a featured player in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Recent reports from Israel suggest that Bibi will be indicted for bribery in a month or so, before his April 9 re-election bid to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israeli history; The Donald, aka “Individual 1,” has already been depicted as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Michael Cohen case and could well be the subject of a sealed indictment from the Southern District of New York, now universally described on cable news as SDNY.
Both men have dismissed the investigations as groundless witch hunts mounted by their respective “deep states.”
And both leaders are curiously close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bibi has traveled repeatedly to Moscow to confer with Putin on the growing Iranian presence in Syria; The Donald has met the Russian leader five times and had nothing but kind words for him since his 2016 campaign. One major difference: Bibi has not, as far as is known, been negotiating behind the scenes to build a Netanyahu Tower in Moscow.
When it comes to attacking the media, both men have launched full-scale campaigns. Bibi has complained early and often about his treatment in the feisty Israeli press and broadcast networks. His Likud Party recently unveiled a splashy election billboard featuring huge pictures of four leading Israeli journalists with the slogan: “They won’t Decide.”
The Donald, of course, has repeatedly denounced the U.S. media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” Over the weekend, the President celebrated the staff cuts at numerous news operations. One minor difference: Bibi is not known to spend hours each day watching cable news and tweeting his reactions.
The two men have been and remain politically close: Bibi has applauded The Donald at every opportunity, Trump has taken page after page from the Israeli playbook by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, an empty, but symbolic move that Bibi has sought for years. If there is anything else Bibi wants from The Donald, apparently he just has to ask.
Both men are adept at manufacturing crises, real and imagined, to distract attention from other problems. The Donald has conjured caravans of drug dealers and criminals assaulting the southern border in order to build support for his Wall; Bibi has repeatedly and dramatically pointed to Iran as an existential threat to Israel, launched multiple attacks on Hamas forces in Gaza, confronted Hezbollah along the Lebanese border and mounted hundreds of air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Many of these threats to Israel are real; confronting them aggressively tends to divert the public’s attention from other, politically awkward headlines.
Finally, both men are gifted political operators: Bibi became Israel’s youngest prime minister when he served in the late 1990’s, returned to office in 2009 and has beaten back repeated challenges over the last decade; Trump pulled off an amazing political upset in 2016 and has dominated the headlines and airwaves ever since.
At this point, the public opinion polls in Israel favor Bibi’s re-election, albeit by a narrow margin; Trump’s prospects are less promising. The President’s standing in the polls descended to new lows after the abortive government shutdown. But it is too early to count him out for a second term. No appealing Democratic candidate has emerged from the growing crowd of declared and undeclared, and the 2020 election is a political lifetime away.


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