A line is often drawn from US President Donald Trump’s election last year to Britain’s vote for Brexit, the swelling of support for far-right European politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen, the rise of blustering politicians such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and so on.
The democratic world is in the throes of a “populist surge,” goes the refrain, which could shake the foundations of the liberal world order.
It is becoming increasingly common among liberal elites focused on Israel to lump Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in with this narrative of a surging populist right.
The connection is shallow, the evidence drawn almost entirely from the news cycle: Netanyahu makes “populist” statements about Arab voters on Election Day; Netanyahu is backed by many of the same forces as Trump: the Sheldon Adelsons and Republican Jewish Congresses of the American Jewish right.
But does this convenient narrative correspond to a complex reality?
Netanyahu is not really a populist, and certainly no Trump, both because he is not actually popular even among many of his own voters, and because he does not believe that his political identity is rooted in the upending of an established political order or elite.
But there is a deeper divide between the two leaders, one that will become ever more apparent as Trump pushes ahead with his peace initiative in the coming months and finds that his hunger for a legacy collides with Netanyahu’s fear of what he sees as irresponsible concessions: Trump lives and thinks in the moment, in flashes of political ego and fleeting media scuffles. Netanyahu sees himself at the wavefront of a long and demanding history.
In 2013, at an event in the US Congress marking the end of then-ambassador to the US Michael Oren’s term in Washington, Netanyahu described this sensibility in stark terms (the quote is recalled in Oren’s memoir “Ally”).
“History is not just a flat chronicle of events,” Netanyahu said. “History is an understanding of the forces that work, the values that shape present action and direct the future. If you have that knowledge, you are empowered in ways that you can’t get by watching the nightly news or reading the morning editorials. We live in an ahistorical age when many people’s memories go back to breakfast, but if you’re armed with that insight you have immense power for good.”
This was no mere quip. It is Netanyahu’s defining vision of himself.
In his book “The Founding Fathers of Zionism,” the eminent historian Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s late father, once identified a “conspicuous dividing line in our history – a kind of cross-section between two great epochs: Our people, which in its distant past produced many individuals who excelled at perceiving the future, transformed in its period of exile into a nation that seems to have been struck by a blindness in this respect. It is astonishing that at no period in the annals of our exile, until the beginning of our struggle for emancipation [in the 18th century], can we discern an awareness of that which is coming into being, or a prognosis of what the near-term future might bring. We did not see the coming of the greatest catastrophes (such as the expulsion from Spain) even very close to their occurrence, and therefore we always experienced them as ‘bolts from the blue.’”
With the coming of political Zionism, the elder Netanyahu explained, Jewish leaders reclaimed for themselves the power of foresight, a process of “grasping the meaning of present-day trends, understanding their direction, significance and influence, and assessing the outcomes of their collisions one with another. Understand these processes properly and you have already seen the outlines of the future.”
It is hard to imagine a more perfect antithesis to Netanyahu’s vision of himself than the current American president
Benzion Netanyahu wrote those words in praise of his mentor, the Zionist thinker and activist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky, he wrote, saw in this sort of vision “the entire essence of statesmanship.”
Netanyahu’s critics frequently deride the flowery and often tendentious historical references that pepper his speeches, with their references to exile, the Holocaust and other catastrophes. But the prime minister is a student of his father, gleaning from him a defining sense of responsibility to a deep past and a belief that the most important trends and facts in a nation’s political life are not those that find expression in the news cycle.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect antithesis to Netanyahu’s vision of himself than the current American president.
Trump does not display any sense of history. He thinks and acts like an entertainer, as hungry for the audience’s attention as the audience is for his antics. Even when the White House speaks of “legacy,” it refers to Trump’s future reputation, not to any sense of responsibility for a history older and larger than the current administration.
Much has been made of Netanyahu’s supposed joy at Trump’s election. Netanyahu is close to Republicans in his views and temperament. His own policy views are deeply informed by American ideas. A voracious reader, he is more likely to be caught in the Knesset halls carrying an English-language book than a Hebrew one — and almost always written by an American author. Yet by sheer bad luck (from his perspective), Netanyahu’s three-year term in the 1990s coincided with Bill Clinton’s presidency, and his three terms since 2009 with Barack Obama’s.
Here, then, is his chance to finally lead Israel with a pro-Israel Republican in the White House.
Or so many observers assume.
But for Netanyahu, Trump is hardly the stolid Republican propelled by the principles the Israeli leader feels he shares with the GOP. He is a wild showman. No one has yet sifted through the noise of Trump’s neverending theatrics to any bedrock of ideas that might be said to drive the American president. Perhaps there is no such bedrock, or perhaps it is there but Trump is not the sort of man who can articulate it. In any case, there is no ground floor here from which a proper theory of his intellectual world might be constructed.
In Netanyahu’s view, the small community of people who stand at the helm of human affairs is divided not between left and right so much as between the impatient ignoramus and the considered planner.
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Netanyahu’s critique of Trump’s predecessor Obama was not, at its core, that the former president was “anti-Israel,” but that he was ignorant and egotistical. Obama was cleverer than the current president, but ultimately not wiser: demanding a painful settlement freeze in 2010 without delivering a Palestinian return to the negotiating table, playing coy with regional allies like Saudi Arabia while reaching grand bargains with sworn enemies like Iran. Driven by a preoccupation with his legacy rather than a nuanced policy vision — again, in Netanyahu’s estimation — Obama acted brashly and drove peace and regional stability further away. A wiser policy that took Palestinian political culture and its dysfunctions into account might have brought the sides closer to peace, but Obama’s sense of his own redemptive historical role drove him to blunder foolishly about and waste the goodwill and political capital he initially wielded in the region.
Before he’s a Republican, Trump is simply Trump. His views are impossible to pin down, his temperament impossible to really predict. In Netanyahu’s view, he arrives in this region wielding an ego the size of Obama’s and an ignorance that surpasses even the laughably unsuccessful — again, to Netanyahu’s mind — fumbling of the previous president.
Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders plan to welcome Trump with pomp and circumstance, lavishing praise on the American leader and pronouncing their full-throated backing for his as-yet amorphous peace initiative. This is not a sign of trust in Trump, but of their calculation that words are more important than substance to the new administration, that this president is best handled as a reality television star rather than a hard-nosed policy challenge.
There is thus an inverse relationship between the intensity of the accolades Trump will receive and the likelihood that either leader is about to make the sort of desperate political gamble, risking his leadership and legacy, that peacemaking might entail.
Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas will risk all for a president whose essential commitment, in their view, is to his own ego and legacy, and not their long-term success.