The Decline of Two Would-Be Autocrats

Alan Zendell, June 15, 2021

They’re not exactly two peas in a pod, but there are far more similarities than differences between recently deposed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and recently defeated American President Donald Trump. Their most regrettable similarity is that they pose grave dangers to both their own nations and the world order. That’s remarkable in itself, since one was supposed to be the leader of the Free World – if that term still applies with democracy under attack almost everywhere – while the other was the leader of a tiny, embattled nation surrounded by sworn enemies for its entire existence.

Israel has only existed as an independent nation since 1948. Its creation by the fledgling United Nations was partly a way to offer Jewish people a homeland of their own after the Nazi attempt at genocide reduced their worldwide population by 36 percent, from 16.6 million to 10.6 million. It was also a misguided attempt to create political stability in the Middle East. It’s difficult to see how creating a nearly defenseless nation on land that had been fought over for more than a thousand years surrounded by enemies that outnumbered it by more than 100 to 1 and swore to annihilate it on the first day of its existence was supposed to accomplish that.

Israel survived through toughness and sacrifice. Wealthy Israelis accepted a 50% tax on their income to pay for military aid, largely from the United States and later from France and the UK. Despite significant anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States after the war, hatred of Jews was easily overmatched by fear of Communism, which guaranteed that America would never abandon Israel. The tiny nation became the lynchpin for the western nations’ attempts to contain Soviet expansion.

Our support of Israel wasn’t a one-way street. America’s massive infusion of aid was in our strategic interest as it stymied the Soviet Union’s efforts to attain a beachhead in the Middle East. Israeli engineers improved the warplanes we sent them and shared the upgrades with our military. Moreover, Israeli Intelligence and operatives on the ground became our Middle East front line in the Cold War. But two generations of living under siege caused the next generation of Israelis to long for a negotiated peace with their neighbors. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a majority of young Israelis voted against their right-wing government, only to have the tables turned when the Soviet Union collapsed, and more than three million Jews who had lived under Soviet domination emigrated to Israel. They swung the pendulum away from negotiation toward aggressive expansionism and created the power base of Bibi Netanyahu.

Netanyahu never supported a negotiated peace with his Arab neighbors because he equated compromise with the loss of Israeli power. He used his office to sabotage those efforts, repeatedly violating international law by building settlements on the Palestinian West Bank. His autocratic, my-way-or-no-way approach to government made him a Trump favorite, his disdain for neighboring countries matchng Trump’s, though to be fair, Netanyahu’s had some justification. Mexico, Canada, and Central America never vowed to destroy the United States.

Another thing Trump admired about Netanyahu was his response to being continually hounded by his nation’s justice system. Repeatedly declaring innocence of any wrong-doing despite years of mounting evidence of criminal corruption was something that was right in Trump’s wheelhouse. What really got Trump’s attention was the way Netanyahu clung to power even after being indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust (accepting bribes for political favors.) Trump has been under investigation for racketeering and tax fraud for decades, and he knew that if he failed to be re-elected, he would likely be indicted without his pet Justice Department to protect him.

Trump and Netanyahu both displayed a willingness to retain power by any means necessary, counting on a rabid base of support to keep them in office. But here and in Israel those bases eventually waned, until this week, anger over Netanyahu’s policies and governing style resulted in a coalition of parties so diverse, no one imagined they could ever unite. The one thing that held them together was the need to depose Netanyahu. In like manner, nothing but fear and dislike of Trump could have united Democrats and Independents, enabling them to defeat him in 2020, and prosecutors in New York hint that Trump may soon suffer Netanyahu’s fate.

Both men loudly protested that their defeats were fraudulent, but let’s not take the comparison too far. Netanyahu may be corrupt and wrongheaded about negotiating with his neighbors, but right-wing supporters won’t be marching on Jerusalem in armed insurrection any time soon.

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