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By Asher Schechter
Understandably bewildered by the lunacy that has taken over their political system in the past year, Americans who wish to better understand where their country might be headed could look to Israel for potential clues.
Of course, any comparison between the U.S. and Israel is bound to be severely limited. Yet the process American politics is currently going through seems remarkably similar to the one Israel experienced in the past decade: Virtually everything that Americans find bewildering about the 2016 presidential election is something Israelis have grown terribly familiar with in recent years.
Fueled by a flammable mix of nationalism, polarized internal politics, widespread hostility toward the political establishment, and (mostly) American donor money, a wave of Tea Party-esque anti-intellectualism has turned Israel into a “clownocracy”: a country mostly governed by politician-entertainers who prefer to make boastful ultra-nationalist statements—guaranteed to make the evening news—than actually govern. None of them have Donald Trump’s fortune (then again, neither does Trump), but over the past decade they have successfully utilized a similar strategy of near-incoherent bravado and xenophobic populism.
A look at the language used by both Trump and his Israeli counterparts should make the parallels abundantly clear. When Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, he was unknowingly channeling Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev, who once referred to African asylum seekers as “cancer,” and a host of Israeli politicians who referred to Palestinians as “beasts.” When Trump tries to capitalize on post-9/11 fears of Islamic terrorism, he wishes he could be as successful as Benjamin Netanyahu, who won reelection last year thanks to a vague warning on Election Day that “Arabs are rushing to the polls in droves.”
Much like Trump, the new stars of the Israeli far-right have begun to actively court controversy in recent years. Pressured to be more and more extreme by voters who feel anxious and betrayed, and who (perhaps rightly) lay the blame for Israel’s economic and security problems on the political establishment and its affiliated elites, they have learned they can easily make a name for themselves by using cheap stunts that bait the anger of liberals in Israel and abroad. Netanyahu’s claims that the Palestinian mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini was the one to inspired Hitler to order mass killings of Jews caused a global furor last year, but made him even more popular with his electoral base.
Sadly, the result has been a country unable to meet its considerable economic and security challenges. Israel is currently mired in an endless security crisis that it has no idea how to resolve, and its politicians seem to have given up trying, promising (as Netanyahu said late last year) that Israel “will always live on its sword.” Five years after the biggest social protest in its history, inequality continues to worsen, corruption is ubiquitous, and cost of living continues to soar.
To be fair, this is not the fault of the far-right alone. Much like Trump’s rise in the U.S., none of this could have happened the way that it did if the center-left, in an effort to win over right-wing voters, hadn’t completely abandoned its original mission in favor of blatant opportunism.
Much like in the U.S., Israel has been plagued by a general lack of vision that affected both sides of the political spectrum. Israel’s opposition leader Isaac Herzog, for instance, promised to build a “great wall” in order to disengage from the Palestinians. Shortly thereafter, Netanyahu promised to erect fences around Israel in order to protect it from “wild beasts.”
The two decades that followed the failure of the Oslo process have been marked by an idea vacuum, into which only violence and extremism were left to fill the void.
In Israel, the popularity of such ideas has led to a gradual, yet rapid shift away from democratic principles. Earlier this year, the Knesset passed a draconian anti-terror bill that expands the definitions of “terrorist activity” to such a degree that wearing certain T-shirts, waving flags, and leaving online comments could constitute “terrorist actions” that merit significant imprisonment. This month, the Knesset passed a controversial bill that requires human rights organizations who receive foreign funding to publicly identify their backers and cite this fact in all their publications and interactions with public officials.
Israel, obviously, is not America. The political context behind the rise of the extremist right in both countries is entirely different: Israeli communities have not been ravaged by free trade to the degree that Rust Belt communities have, and the U.S. is not surrounded by enemy states.
Yet, the similarities between the current political atmosphere in both countries are not mere coincidence. Much of it stems from the fact that both are influenced by a similar donor pool. In recent years, with Israeli politicians (mostly from the right) increasingly courting wealthy foreign backers, a flood of American money has contributed to a transformative change in Israel’s politics.
None exemplifies this trend more than the American business magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose well-documented support of Benjamin Netanyahu has been crucial in making Netanyahu the second-longest reigning prime minister in Israel’s history.
Incidentally, if Trump was to win in November, meetings between the Israeli Prime Minister and the U.S. President could essentially become conversations between two Adelson protégés. That would give Adelson—who believes “the purpose of the existence of Palestinians is to destroy Israel” and once replied “so what?” when asked about a scenario in which Israel is no longer democratic—an even greater influence on U.S.-Israel relations than he currently has.
Despite all their differences, at the end of this presidential election, Israel and the U.S. may end up becoming more similar than ever. This does not bode well for Israel—or the U.S.
Asher Schechter is journalist and author, specializing in issues of antitrust, social change, and Israeli politics. He currently writes for ProMarket.org and is a columnist for Haaretz.