In American and in Israel, those obligated to enforce the rule of law are instead attacking it. Acting more like a mad king than a president, Donald Trump still seeks to weaponize the law against his political adversaries. The 2016 chants of “lock her up” are segueing into an even darker version of what may come next.
Bill Barr, the attorney general, squirmed and mumbled on national television when pressed by Sen. Kamala Harris as to whether Trump had sought to unleash the Department of Justice against his foes. This past weekend, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, cancelled a trip to Ukraine that had been scheduled to sic the country’s legal system on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Apparently, Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump’s political ally and spiritual younger brother, has been taking copious notes. The Israeli prime minister is reportedly seeking to escape prosecution on multiple corruption charges by gutting judicial oversight of his cabinet and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in effect immunizing himself and all that he touches. Unlike Trump, Netanyahu is not a head of state, but that has not stopped Netanyahu from acting like the imperial prime minister. According to Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer, in his quest for survival Netanyahu is willing to say the “hell with Israeli democracy”.
With justice blinded, Netanyahu hopes to gain the enactment of legislation that would bar his prosecution as long as he remained in office. Where Trump threatens and thunders, Netanyahu simply swaps. Give him what he needs, and he’ll give you what you want.
Israel’s prime minister barters for his own freedom by offering his coalition partners anything and everything. To quote the Book of Esther: “Ask and it’s yours—even if it’s half my kingdom”; religiously segregated cities, check; expanded West Bank settlements and land seizures, check. With Netanyahu’s fate on the line, all is on the table.
Both Trump’s America and Netanyahu’s Israel are giving democracy a bad name and—unlike Netanyahu—Trump finished second by nearly 3 million votes. In other words, Trump’s claim that he somehow channels the vox populi is belied by reality. Rather, his legitimacy flows solely from the Constitution, a document he defies daily.
Yet none of it matters for Trump’s and Netanyahu’s respective political bases, which are separated more by distance than by outlook. They both view Trump and Netanyahu as heroic, if not biblical figures.
Sarah Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, told the Christian Broadcasting Network: “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.” Franklin Graham, the late Billy Graham’s son, threatened Americans with God’s wrath if they had the temerity to criticize the president. Meanwhile, the religious right in the US and Israel call Trump a modern day King Cyrus, the Persian emperor who greenlighted the return of Babylon’s exiled Jews to Zion in 538 BCE.
Between Trump and Netanyahu, it is Netanyahu who possesses the stronger hand at home. Opposition to Trump is structural, lodged in a House of Representatives that grows more hostile by the day. When conservative lawyers George Conway, the husband of Trumpista Kellyanne Conway, and John Yoo, the author of the infamous torture memo, are railing against Trump, it is safe to say that Trump went over the legal line a long time ago. Beyond that, most Americans disapprove of Trump, and Trump’s trade war with China is not about to earn the president any new friends. A dropping Dow is a downer.
By contrast, effective opposition to Netanyahu can only come from within the ranks of his coalition partners, and right now there’s no indication of that happening. Members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party have taken to trashing the courts and the media as opposed to back-pedaling on the story of Netanyahu’s contemplated power-grab. But it doesn’t end there.
Netanyahu is popular and Israelis feel besieged. As the American-born and Ivy League-educated Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the US, told The New Yorker in a contentious and self-abridged interview, Israelis look “at our position in the world vis-à-vis world powers, and have to ask themselves, ‘Do I really dislike Benjamin Netanyahu enough to change this?’” Although Oren proclaimed that on social issues, he was “left of center”, there is no indication that he will be pushing back on his former boss with the press looking on as an enraged bystander.
Around the globe, classic liberalism strains as populism congeals into majoritarianism. It’s no surprise, that Hungary’s illiberal Viktor Orban is visiting Trump and that he’s already paid his respects to Netanyahu. Think of birds of a feather who equate their own persons with the countries they lead. Instead of the rule of law, think l’état c’est moi.
Trump, Orban and Netanyahu, all three, also loathe the Hungarian-born George Soros, and have publicly fed into conspiracy theories about the Jewish billionaire. Trump mainstreamed the demonization of Soros in the 2016 election, and Orban has relentlessly vilified Soros as an interloper in Hungary’s politics, forcing the eviction of Soros’s Central European University from the country. As for Netanyahu, he and his alles too have turned Soros into a punching bag.
The Mueller Report concludes with the admonition from a 19th century Supreme Court decision that the occupant of the Oval Office remains subject to the law however inconvenient that might be. As framed by the court: “The protection of the criminal justice system from corrupt acts by any person—including the President—accords with the fundamental principle of our government that ‘[n]o [person] in this country is so high that he is above the law.’”
We are about to find out whether that axiom really applies to either D.C. or Jerusalem.