In the coming weeks, a U.S. Senate trial of President Donald Trump on impeachment charges is looming. In Israel this week, the Knesset will debate whether or not to grant immunity to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing indictments on charges of alleged corruption. These political allies are both also facing tough re-election fights this year. Fervent supporters of Trump and Netanyahu also have similarly dim views of their political opponents and mainstream media outlets, which they not unreasonably regard as implacably hostile to the two leaders. And both seem to have bred in their opponents an anger that rises above the normal antagonisms natural to politics in a democracy.
But though the similarities between the two country’s situations seem remarkably similar, lazy pundits who are making such analogies are fundamentally wrong. It’s true that Trump and Netanyahu are lightning rods for their opponents, and face allegations relating to their legitimacy that seem to transcend their nation’s political debates. But the contrasts between the two and their respective predicaments are far greater than their opponents seem to understand.
Leaving aside their very different personalities and backgrounds—Netanyahu is an intellectual and former military elite who has spent his life in public service, while Trump was a political novice when he ran for president, and no one has ever accused him of being an intellectual—the real difference is in the fundamental nature of political debates in the two countries. The United States has never been so deeply divided about political questions since the Civil War. Israel is fundamentally united on the great issues of the day.
This point is easily ignored because both the U.S. presidential election and the upcoming Israeli election—the third within the last year—are rightly perceived as referenda about the two leaders.
Trump looms over every discussion about politics and even culture in the United States. Opinions about virtually every issue or question facing the country are influenced by views about this real estate mogul/reality TV star in a way that is virtually unprecedented in American political history. Democrats are united in their loathing for the president, while Republicans seem equally unified by their support for him, as well as by their anger at the thought of his opponents having their way and evicting him from office.
Israel’s election also hinges primarily on the question of whether Netanyahu will continue in office after 11 straight years in power and 14 overall as prime minister. His primary opponent in the election—former Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff and retired Gen. Benny Gantz, and the various elements of his Blue and White Party—were brought together solely by a desire to defeat the prime minister. Netanyahu’s critics are also quick to accuse him of undermining democracy with the same kind of arguments employed by Trump’s critics.
The fact that both elections hinge on the two incumbents should not distract us from the fundamental difference between American and Israeli politics in 2020. Americans are fairly evenly divided on all the great issues facing the country. Opinions about Trump have helped to solidify those schisms and make them as intractably partisan, as is the case with every other issue currently up for debate. The difference between Republicans and Democrats about Iran policy or killing a terrorist like Qassem Soleimani illustrated this, since Democrats would have almost certainly cheered and not treated it as an invitation to World War III if a Democratic president had taken the same action.
In that sense, Trump has exacerbated partisanship in a way that exceeds the way similar “derangement syndromes” generated by his predecessors did. But Americans would still be split in this fashion, albeit perhaps in a more civil manner, if someone else had been elected president in 2016.
But despite the similarly angry and bitter nature of the rhetoric being employed by Israeli politicians against each other, this should not be mistaken for the same kind of intractable left-right divide that exists now in the United States.
What is often obscured by mainstream media coverage of Israeli politics that is tainted by hostility to Netanyahu is the fact that his main political opponents don’t really disagree with him on the one issue that matters above all others: the conflict with the Palestinians.
Gantz spent both the April and September election campaigns trying not only to leave a sliver of daylight between himself and Netanyahu on security issues, but to also position himself as somehow to the right of the prime minister, whether it was on how to deal with Hamas terrorists in Gaza or the future of the Jordan Valley. Gantz’s success in leading Blue and White is a testament to his ability to illustrate the consensus on the peace process that stretches from the moderate left to the right. Few in Israel outside of the far-left (where the remnants of the once-dominant Labor Party and the leftist Meretz faction are now merging to avoid political oblivion) believe that the country has a peace partner or should listen to advice from foreign liberals about more territorial withdrawals. Nor is a Gantz-led government likely to diverge greatly from Netanyahu on economic issues.
In that sense, a leftist critic of Netanyahu and Gantz was right to complain that the face-off between the two was more like a contest between Trump and a moderate conservative like Mitt Romney, with liberal opponents being consigned to the margins.
By contrast, real and profound differences fester among any of the Democrats running for president, and Trump and the Republicans on a host of issues. And it’s likely that whoever wins in November will face an equally divided and embittered nation no matter what the outcome.
As much as it is tempting to pretend that Israeli politics is as dysfunctional as the American variety, the truth is that the two countries are not experiencing a similar kind of political civil war. The split about Netanyahu notwithstanding, Israelis are not nearly as much at odds with each other as Americans.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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