One of the most famous works of late antiquity was Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, comparative biographies of seemingly similar Greek and Roman figures (Alexander and Caesar, Demosthenes and Cicero, and so on). Were he alive today, the Romanized Greek historian might well write a comparative study of two powerful and oddly parallel lives, one Israeli, one American—the democratic leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald J. Trump.
Hamas’ current gravely serious rocket attacks on Israel’s cities, perhaps portending a more general confrontation, have put a halt to domestic Israeli party politics. Nevertheless, it is still worth recalling that sometimes history, society, and politics conspire to produce, despite disparate actors and contexts, oddly similar political trajectories and careers.
Probing the similarities, while not neglecting the differences, between such figures can illuminate some important issues. Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald J. Trump are both strong, conservative politicians, very much leaders, shapers of events, rather than largely passive respondents to them. Bibi (Prime Minister, off and mostly on, since 1996), already rivals Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, as the Jewish state’s longest-serving Prime Minister. He has presided over the coming to dominance of his Likud Party-led conservative secular-religious coalition. Indeed, under his aegis Israel’s Center-Right has become so politically hegemonic that—unlike the West—a majority of even younger Israeli voters is self-proclaimedly conservative.
Donald Trump, while a comparative newcomer to electoral politics, was already a public figure. Like Netanyahu, he also presided over a political transformation. In his case, shifting the Republican Party from an eastern, pro-establishment, business-elite-led institution to an increasingly populist, inter-coastal movement, attracting working and middle-class people as well as an increasing number of black and Hispanic supporters.
While halted and thrown off-balance by the advent of COVID-19, and Trump’s close 2020 electoral loss, this deep transformation of American conservatism into a populist-nationalist movement will no doubt continue. And, if the Biden Administration falters (as it already gives signs of doing) as society returns to normal post-recovery parameters. The Republican movement will rapidly pick up steam.
Both Netanyahu and Trump confronted and were opposed by media-backed, corruption-charging left-of-center political movements. In Bibi’s case, the traditional Labour Party-led left, accusing him of personal lifestyle and media-influencing allegations, captained the charge. With Trump, an increasingly “progressive”, even socialist, Democratic Party, took him on.
Eschewing its post-FDR, JFK, and LBJ liberal bases and assisted by a “never-Trumper” rump of traditional Republicans, “woke” Democrats opposed Trump tooth-and-nail. Through repeated media-backed “Russia hoax” and impeachment campaigns, they sought to destroy his Presidency.
In both cases charismatic leaders committed to democratic capitalist free-market visions, and moderate, anti-left populist-nationalism—Bibi issuing from Jabotinsky-ite, and Trump from Reaganite, roots—broke with preceding political alignments. And in both cases, they endured personalized media-backed campaigns determined not just to oppose and defeat them politically, but to terminate their careers and influence.
The Likud leader ably guided democratic Jewish Israel through the dangerous shoals of its Middle Eastern region, overcoming Egyptian-Syrian state-led regional wars and domestic Palestinian terrorist intifadas. Bibi led the country to a sustained period of relative peace, stability, and remarkable economic and technological development. And he forged increasingly close formal and informal relations with Israel’s Sunni (but not Iran-backed Shi’ite) Muslim neighbors.
Trump too, achieved much, and in a much shorter period. He defeated Islamic State, stabilized Iraq, managed to stay out of the Syrian debacle, began extrication from the never-ending Afghan war, managed the North Korean nuclear threat, and initiated opposition to Chinese economic and political expansionism.
Domestically, both men presided over sustained periods of social and economic dynamism. Just as Bibi led Israel to world technological preeminence and First World living standards, Trump, “making America great again”, cut taxes, lifted average annual incomes and employment across all social and ethnic sectors to new heights, stemmed the flood of illegal immigration, and revived American industry as the stock market hit record new pre-COVID highs.
After an initial period of shock and confusion, shared generally with other Western states, due to the rapid and unprecedented spread of COVID-19, the Wuhan virus from China, both Bibi and Trump bounced back and, responding well to the crisis, overcame significant adversity.
Trump was responsible for enabling the big drug companies, through his Project Warp Speed’s massive financial underwriting, to quickly, indeed miraculously, develop, test, and bring to market not one, but several effective vaccines. A process that normally could have taken at least three to four years, was completed in less than one, saving literally millions of lives.
Israel wound up securing early access to the Pfizer vaccine, negotiating a deal, which saw the Jewish state become the world’s leader in percentage of population vaccinated, and the first to return to relative normalcy.
(The Biden Administration, viscerally allergic to giving Trump any positive recognition, not only ignored his achievement but claimed that it alone was responsible for effective vaccinations. But in future ages, Trump, whatever his other accomplishments and ultimate fate, will no doubt be universally remembered for his rapid and effective Covid-19 program. [And for his early insistence on the virus’ man-made Wuhan laboratory origins, as a growing consensus of experts now indicates.]
Interestingly, though basically successful as politicians, both Bibi and Trump have suffered similarly chequered political fates. Currently, Bibi is down, but—despite the shaky one-vote majority coalition (led by his former supporter Naftali Bennett, with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and supported by the Islamic Ra’am Arab party)—not yet definitively out. He remains Prime Minister, while his political future hangs in the balance, and has declared he will become leader of he opposition should it come to it.
Trump on the other hand is out, but not necessarily down. Seventy-five million Americans voted for him, his “base” remains solid, and he still leads the Republican Party. (See the recent ousting of Liz Cheney, his sworn “moderate” enemy, from her leadership post). And if the Republicans prevail in the 2022 Congressional elections, as seems increasingly possible, Mr. “Make America Great Again” may, despite the Democrats’ best efforts to drive a political stake through his heart (e.g., the Jan.6 “white racist insurrection”, which they blame on him), not only return in 2024, but win.
Where these parallel lives most closely overlap is in foreign policy. The U.S., under Trump, became not only Israel’s closest, but most reliable, ally, while Bibi strongly supported Trump’s foreign policy, and opposed the JCPOA agreement with Iran, facts not lost on the Muslim world.
Indeed, Donald J. Trump was America’s most pro-Israel President, moving its Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and “West Bank”. withdrawing support for the ever-recalcitrant Palestinians, canceling the disastrous Obama-Iran JCPOA agreement, and godfathering the Abraham Accords.
Indeed, early Biden Administration reversion to Obamian “two-state” Middle East “balance”, including resuming payments to the Palestinians, support for UNRWA, and resuscitation of the JCPOA with the Iranians, may well have played a key role in green-lighting resumed Palestinian attacks on (and in) Israel and renewed Middle East crisis.
Just as both Israeli and American leaders have faced, and overcome, opposition and setbacks on their respective political paths, so too do they share both future political uncertainties, and possibilities.
Trump of course, lost the 2020 election and is currently out of power (though he and many supporters still claim that contest was marked by Constitutional improprieties and electoral fraud). And the Democrats have shrewdly demonized Trump by cutting off his access to his huge Facebook/Twitter audience, and blaming him for what their messaging on the Jan.6 Congress riot terms a “deadly Insurrection”, meant not to protest confirmation of the Electoral College’s vote, but to block it.
(Inversely, the destructive wave of summer, 2020 George Floyd-related BLM/Antifa “anti-racist” rioting, clearly directed against Trump, which cost 30 lives, wounded 750 policemen, and caused over $2 billion in damage) was defended by the Democrats as “peaceful protest”.)
There is no doubt that COVID-19’s disruption and dislocation (complicated by Trump’s characteristic and sometimes-excessive fulminations, on and off Twitter) was largely responsible for the change in Trump’s fortunes. Had the Coronavirus not struck, it seems quite probable that he would have been a shoo-in for re-election in 2020.
In Netanyahu’s case, in a manner similar to the radical anti-Trump campaign, accusations of corruption and impropriety dogged him for years, ramped-up and pushed by left-wing media and elite groups. Bibi’s situation is made even more precarious by Israel’s inherently unstable proportional-representation electoral system, which gives not only small marginal parties, but factions within larger coalition parties (cf. Naftali Bennett, and Gideon Sa’ar, respectively) often disproportionate power.
Proportional representation, often more than candidates’ “ordinary” political weakness or failings, accounts for structural Israeli electoral instability, expressed recently by four back-to-back unresolved elections, and by the vagaries of meeting a 61-vote majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Nevertheless, by that time, given the instability of the Bennett-Lapid coalition, what some now see as momentous (inclusion of an Arab Islamic party) may well prove a blip.
Trump, on the other hand, may (reflecting on the unending and vicious punishment inflicted on him from the very beginning of his Presidency) decide not to run again. Or (despite his ongoing popularity with the Republican base) he may yet be outmaneuvered by a rising, less controversial, younger and more broadly attractive candidate, one without his personality flaws (Senators Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton? Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley? Vice-President Mike Pence? Florida Governor Ron DeSantis?).
Then again, by 2024 a longing for a return to normalcy after four years of “woke” Democratic-progressive excess or failure (domestically—immigration, taxation; foreign policy—China, Russia, Middle East) could well redound to (a perhaps somewhat behaviorally chastened) Trump’s benefit.
As Plutarch noted over 2,000 years ago, against the role of Fata, fate, in politics, one must never discount the role of Fortuna, luck and chance, nor that of ratio and voluntas, individual reason and will, force of character. An uncertainty principle of course hovers over all political possibilities, and the book of the future is not yet written—as Machiavelli, that great Florentine republican idealist (who knew his Plutarch well) wrote, often virtù vince fortuna, ability and character defeat fortune.
Don’t be surprised, then, to awaken on the morning of November 7, 2024 to find both Bibi and Trump back in the saddle, pursuing the domestic and international policies which made them both great leaders.
(Prof. Krantz, Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, is also Editor of its ISRAFAX and Daily Isranet Briefing publications.)