Ex-US President Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu, current Israeli Prime Minister, are both political Houdinis.
It is curious how their paths crossed when they did. Their leaderships coincided before Trump lost to President Biden in 2020 and Netanyahu and his Likud party briefly lost their grip on power in 2021. During their overlapping time in office both populist leaders could count on each other to help deliver precious votes, and being seen in each other’s company made their stars shine brighter, in the eyes of some, at least. To others, it looked like a pact made in hell by two power-greedy, unprincipled men. The story of Netanyahu’s present term as Israeli prime minister is the stuff of high drama, as Trump’s possible return to the White House in 2024 is shaping up to be. The international coverage of his one hour in a New York court last week was quite a prelude.
There are certain similarities between the two politicians whose politics I find unpalatable, but that is a personal matter. More significant is what unites them and is plainly evident to everyone. Twice-impeached ex-President Trump has been indicted on 34 charges, including paying hush money and falsifying his company records. He has gained special notoriety as the first US president – former or serving – to be indicted for felonies. Meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu has been trying to see off mass demonstrations in Israel against his plans to sabotage the country’s judicial system in order to keep him out of court for charges of similarly reprehensible misdemeanours as Trump, including fraud and bribery, committed while he was PM between 2013-2016. Netanyahu, too, made history by being the first serving Israeli PM to be indicted by the State, although his predecessor was also accused of corruption but resigned before the State indicted him.
The felonies are one thing, but what really unites these two men is their breathtaking cussidness, above all else. They have both pushed their parties into positions that go beyond what many of their supporters can recognise as the defining nature of their politics, plunging their well-established parties into crisis. More importantly, it is clear that these party leaders care little about compromising the democratic institutions on which their countries are founded, for purely personal reasons – power, money and escaping punishment. Trump, as president, never revealed his personal finances, he refused to accept his loss at the polls, then encouraged his followers to protest and into that unprecedented march on the Capitol when they brayed for the blood of his VP Mike Pence and ransacked the office of then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. People died that day. For his part, Netanyahu, once Israel’s longest serving PM, has created political and social turmoil as he pursues his goal of continued political leadership.
Both men seem determined to take their countries into unimagined directions but the methods used by the liberal centre to block them differ. A comparison with France and Britain is an interesting aside. President Macron recently extended the retirement age to 64 and for weeks French citizens protested violently in their capital city over a matter of liberté, in the uniquely French sense of the word but they could not undo the deed. It may seem indulgent to citizens of other countries where the facts are the same, namely, if not enough people of working age exist in the population there will be insufficient money in state coffers to pay pensions in the future, especially since life expectancy has increased. In the UK, where people fully understand the role of protest in a free society, retirement age will eventually increase to 68, partly due to the fallout of the disastrously simplistic economics of the thankfully short-lived PM Liz Truss, but the British are pragmatists and it is therefore unlikely that protests would occur over pension policy.
In Israel, where protesting is also well entrenched, 14 weeks of historically big demonstrations including widespread strikes, have forced PM Netanyahu to hit pause. His indictment and 2020 trial did not bar him from seeking future electoral leadership but the Supreme Court ruled at the time, and he agreed in writing, that he should not partake in any decisions related to the country’s judicial system, which is exactly what he is now trying to do. Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reform would, according to Israeli newspapers, give his extreme-far-right coalition government almost total power over the judicial arm of the state and save Netanyahu from potential imprisonment. Israeli citizens who boast of their unique democracy in a sea of Middle Eastern dictatorships see the threat of a restructured state clearly, and although five elections in four years have divided people, the demonstrators come from all sectors of society. Even Israeli Defence Forces reservists are refusing training in protest over the changes, which they regard as an attack on liberal and secular Israel by authoritarian, theocratic Israel.
Meanwhile, the danger of a second Trump presidency is being taken very seriously in the US and internationally. So far, Trump has eluded containment. The court battles might prove effective but his opponents have to prepare for a long war, especially if he wins the Republican nomination.
Not happy Easter thoughts but good wishes to all readers.