Aug 29th 2017

Two Weakened Leaders

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
 

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a lot in common. Both are in trouble, confronting problems that are more legal than political. And as commentators, here and in Israel have noted, both have responded to their situation in quite similar ways.

Trump is panicking over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia. It was Trump's concern with then-FBI Director James Comey's pursuit of this matter that prompted him to fire Comey, creating the outrage that forced the Department of Justice to appoint Mueller to continue the investigation. 

Since assuming his post, Mueller has quietly and methodically pursued the case. He has convened a grand Jury, issued subpoenas, raided the home of Trump's former campaign chair, and is reportedly looking into the president and his associates' financial dealings with Russian interests.

From the outset, Trump has tried to pull strings to stop the investigation beginning with firing Comey and, more recently, reportedly urging Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell to rein in the separate Senate inquiries into the alleged Russian collusion. These efforts have only served to raise the prospect of the president facing the additional charge of attempting to obstruct of justice. 

After failing to stop the investigation, as the pressure mounted, Trump has lashed out against Democrats and the media. He has termed the entire effort "the greatest witch hunt in history" and repeatedly accuses the media of inventing "fake news" to discredit his victory and bring him down. 

Netanyahu is also facing a number of legal problems, including charges of "fraud, bribery, and breach of trust". Israel's Attorney General is investigating allegations that Netanyahu attempted to bribe the editor of one of Israel's largest daily papers in an effort to win more favorable coverage. He is also being accused of negotiating foreign deals that would benefit family and close associates and receiving substantial illegal gifts from a supporter. To cap off Netanyahu's problems, it is reported that his wife will soon being indicted for "misuse of government funds".  

Not unlike Trump, Netanyahu's response has been to lash out at the investigation, even borrowing some of the US president's rhetoric. At an August 9th rally of supporters, the Israeli leader used the term "fake news" and called the entire effort "an unprecedented, obsessive witch hunt against me and my family, with the goal of achieving a coup against the government. Their aim is to put false nonstop pressure on the legal system to get an indictment at any price". 

It bears repeating that the challenges confronting Trump and Netanyahu are legal and not political which is why both have repeatedly gone to their supporters—railing against their enemies, playing the "victim card", and inciting them with the fear that should they fall, the hard right nationalist agendas that elected them will be at risk. To a great extent, this tactic has worked. 

Trump may continue to embarrass (and even attack) Republican leaders, but this is nothing new. He used this same anti-establishment tactic throughout his 2016 campaign. While most GOP leaders initially opposed his candidacy, they ultimately fell in line for fear of alienating the strong support Trump had won among rank-and-file voters. While disgust with the president's antics has increased, Republican leaders are still afraid to directly take him on. Therefore, despite the Trump's falling poll numbers, the fervor of his voters has so far kept the GOP leadership in check. Some may privately be rooting for Mueller to do for them what they lack the courage to do for themselves. 

Netanyahu's situation is somewhat different. While there are many Likud party hopefuls waiting in the wings to replace him, absent an indictment and conviction, they are not inclined to topple their leader and his government with a "no confidence" vote. Their concern is that new elections may upend their chances to succeed him. Therefore, they too may be quietly rooting for the Attorney General to finish his job so that Netanyahu will be forced to step down unleashing an intra-party squabble to replace him without new elections. 

With both leaders facing their respective legal challenges, in addition to ratcheting up their rhetoric to solidify their bases, they are trying desperately to change the subject.

Governing has proven to be more difficult than campaigning for Trump. At this point, he is hard pressed to claim any legislative victories. He can issue Executive Orders and scrap some Obama-era regulations, but other than placing a conservative judge on the Supreme Court, he has very little else to show in the win column.  

In the area of foreign policy, on the other hand, the president has a freer hand to operate. He received a remarkable welcome in Saudi Arabia and was able to pull out of the Paris Accords on climate change and negotiations to achieve a trade deal with Asian partners. He can threaten North Korea with "fire and fury", determine Iran is in non-compliance, and increase US involvement in Syria and Afghanistan. But none of these will be seen, at home, as "victories". He can also continue to push for the "ultimate deal" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - but this goal, is at best, far-fetched. 

Netanyahu has domestic problems of his own. His far-right coalition is in agreement on most major foreign policy objectives, but is divided between secular and religious elements that have not been easy to reconcile. When some of his predecessors have faced similar domestic challenges, they have launched wars either in Lebanon or Gaza to shore up their position. While the danger of his choosing one of these options is ever-present, neither appears to be in the offing. He continues to threaten Iran, it is unlikely that he will opt to attack. Even with a US green light, the broader and unpredictable negative fallout from such an action make it, at best, a risky adventure. 

Despite Trump's stated desire to create the "ultimate deal" ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—complete with a victorious White House signing ceremony—this isn't in the cards. The domestic support bases on which both Trump and Netanyahu have relied won't provide either leader the space they would need for any reasonable solution to occur. Trump voters and the GOP, itself, are firmly in Netanyahu's camp and the president would put himself at great political risk with most of his base were he to put the type of pressure needed to make the Israelis more forthcoming. And, for his part, Netanyahu is loath to go against his extreme nationalist supporters by making concessions to the Palestinians. Instead, he is shoring up that base by proposing new measures that more deeply expand the occupation of Palestinian lands thereby making any solution impossible. 

And so we are left with an unsettling situation, as two leaders, compromised by their own hubris, await verdicts that will determine their respective fates.

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 22nd 2018
It is now clear that the twenty-first century is ushering in a new world order. As uncertainty and instability associated with that process spread around the globe, the West has responded with either timidity or nostalgia for older forms of nationalism that failed in the past and certainly will not work now. Even to the most inveterate optimist, the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month was proof that the geopolitical West is breaking up and losing its global significance, and that the great destroyer of that American-created and American-led order is none other than the US president. To be sure, Donald Trump is more a symptom than a cause of the West’s disintegration. But he is accelerating the process dramatically.
Jun 20th 2018
Sessions quoted a line written by the apostle Paul to a small community of Christians living in Rome around 55AD to defend the Department of Justice’s approach. He said: "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Sessions used the Bible because one of the most vocal opponents of the crackdown on asylum cases has been the Catholic Church. It’s no surprise that Sessions appealed to Romans chapter 13 verse 1 in response: not only did he hope to undermine Catholic authority by using the Bible against them, he cited a statement so broad that one might use it to defend anything a government does, good or bad. Picture below St Paul writing his epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons.
Jun 19th 2018
 

I find it exceptionally irritating when I hear liberals worry about whether Israel will be able to remain a "Jewish and Democratic State" if it retains control of occupied Palestinian lands.

Jun 18th 2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Jun 14th 2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Jun 12th 2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Jun 12th 2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?
Jun 12th 2018
With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.
Jun 11th 2018
Extract: "While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world."
Jun 8th 2018
Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country? This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Jun 7th 2018
Some analysts even project that, before long, Facebook will hold more data on its users than any government. Meanwhile, it makes a lot of money from this data. Its advertising revenues came up to around US$40 billion in 2017 (up 50% from 2016). With Google, it holds an 84% market share in online advertising.
Jun 5th 2018
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family,” she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York. Barr’s show was swiftly canceled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Jun 4th 2018
 

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

Jun 1st 2018
Extract from the article: "While the West’s relative decline is almost inevitable, its economic dysfunction is not. Yet pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Why undertake difficult reforms if a dark future seems preordained? As a result, accepting and anxious pessimists tend to elect governments that duck difficult decisions (witness Germany’s grand coalition), while angry pessimists make matters worse (by voting for Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or for Brexit, for example). It doesn’t have to be this way. As French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated, bold leaders can succeed with a message of hope, openness, and inclusion, and by promoting a vision of progress based on credible reforms."
May 30th 2018
It has been nearly two years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union. As the march toward Brexit – formally set for the end of next March – proceeds, fundamental questions about the nature of the future UK-EU relationship remain unanswered. Instead, every time a tough decision must be made in the negotiations in Brussels, British ministers kick the can down the road, or even into the long grass. This is somewhat surprising. Apparently, none of the politicians and newspaper editors who plotted for years to get the UK out of the EU thought much about what would happen if their machinations succeeded.
May 30th 2018
Discussions are now underway to establish a system of joint deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Proponents of the scheme, with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) taking the lead, point out that deposit insurance would avert the danger of a run on banks in times of crisis. While this argument is true, critics emphasize the disparity in risks, owing to the high share of bad loans on the balance sheets of banks in some countries. To address this risk disparity and move ahead with the plan, balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before considering the next step. While the share of bad loans for banks in the stable eurozone countries is just 2%, the most recently published International Monetary Fund statistics, from last April, show a share of 11% for Ireland, 16% for Italy, 40% for Cyprus, and 46% for Greece.
May 29th 2018
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way. If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
May 28th 2018
US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.
May 23rd 2018
The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
May 21st 2018
The cryptocurrency revolution, which started with bitcoin in 2009, claims to be inventing new kinds of money. There are now nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies, and millions of people worldwide are excited by them. What accounts for this enthusiasm, which so far remains undampened by warnings that the revolution is a sham? One must bear in mind that attempts to reinvent money have a long history. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out in her book The Social Meaning of Money: “Despite the commonsense idea that ‘a dollar is a dollar is a dollar,’ everywhere we look people are constantly creating different kinds of money.” Many of these innovations generate real excitement, at least for a while. As the medium of exchange throughout the world, money, in its various embodiments, is rich in mystique. We tend to measure people’s value by it. It sums things up like nothing else. And yet it may consist of nothing more than pieces of paper that just go round and round in circles of spending. So its value depends on belief and trust in those pieces of paper. One might call it faith.