The world has many countries with long histories of authoritarianism. In contrast, Israel and the United States have been proud democracies since their founding.
Both countries have enjoyed open political systems, where freedom of speech has long been cherished, where justice has been respected and where the triad of an independent judiciary, a strong legislature and an executive branch of government operating in a system of checks and balances has long been taken for granted. No more.
Now, both countries are becoming unbalanced: In particular, the executive branch is boosting its powers rapidly at the expense of the other branches.
In both the United States and Israel, the leaders are abusing the trust granted to them by the citizens in public elections. Worse, they show a stunning proclivity to enrich themselves and feed their megalomaniacal zest for authoritarian power.
Over the last nine years, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been systematically increasing his personal political power. His star pupil and very good friend, U.S. president Donald Trump, has not only been learning from his mentor, but adding ruthless initiatives of his own.
I had not appreciated just how deep the Israel-United States parallels of abuses of power run until my friend Naomi Chazan came visiting to Washington, D.C. “Both countries are going through a democracy recession,“ says Naomi, the former deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset and a former Meretz Party member of the parliament.
Professor Chazan, a political science scholar and long-time activist for women’s rights, stresses that both Netanyahu and Trump are pursuing broad and comprehensive illiberal strategies that are similar.
Make no mistake, these are well thought-through strategies, despite the impressions that both men so often give of just acting on the spur of the moment.
Let’s start with cash. Netanyahu is the subject of three corruption investigations, while his wife Sara was charged by state prosecutors on June 20 with fraud for assigning close to $100,000 of food bills to government accounts.
Meanwhile, many of Trump’s colleagues, and possibly Trump himself, are being investigated by a Special Counsel. Trump’s former campaign manager sits in prison and three of his former senior political associates have pleaded guilty to assorted crimes.
And, when it comes to money, one might ask: Why are there no investigations into how Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, made more than $80 million in personal income last year, despite being official White House special advisors?
Both Trump and Netanyahu are determined to undermine political opposition. They seek to divide their opponents and are adamant about finding opportunities to humiliate them and to intimidate them.
Their repeated blunt attacks on critics is often effective, tending to silence many people who could and should speak out, but who fear the wrath that may be unleashed against them.
Naomi Chazan, a former president of the New Israel Fund (NIF), that supports many civil rights and social justice organizations in Israel (and I should note that I serve on its International Council), was the target of a major national campaign of vilification.
She was viciously targeted by the Netanyahu controlled media, in large billboards on major highways, and in public speeches. The goal, as in many other campaigns that Netanyahu’s cronies have launched, was to intimidate her and others who shared her progressive views.
Chazan is not going to be intimidated, but the campaign underscored the risks to many progressives of opposing the government.
Maxine Waters is not going to be intimidated either, but the attacks on her by Donald Trump may have a chilling impact on some Americans who share her views, which explicitly oppose Trump’s anti-immigrant and often racist tweets and policies.
African-American Democratic Party Congresswoman Maxine Waters from California is a favorite target of Trump’s attacks.
He likes to warm up his crowds at campaign rallies by attacking her with crude epithets and an implied suggestion that it is no coincidence that his target is both a woman and black. A few days he publicly warned her that she could face personal danger if she continued to be critical.
Netanyahu and Trump know exactly that their public insults can generate death threats against their targets. On the night of Trump’s most recent attack, Maxine Waters had to cancel a public appearance because of the serious threats: “Individuals threatened to shoot, lynch, or cause me serious bodily harm,” she said.
In both countries, the national leaders not only like to talk about “fake“ news and threaten journalists, but they have developed powerful media supporters of their own who will blast their propaganda on an ever-greater scale.
In the United States, the Trump media machine is run by billionaire Rupert Murdoch through his Fox News network. In Israel, another American billionaire, Sheldon Adelson (an old friend of Trump), finances the national daily newspaper Israel Hayom (Today) with the highest circulation in the country.
It not only seems to be written by Netanyahu’s associates but, by being offered free of charge, is damaging the businesses of more traditional media.
Never before in either Israel or in the United States have prominent mainstream journalists had to face so many hostile tweets and explicit threats as they do today. The campaigns against them are central to the strategies in support of the authoritarian aspirations of the national leaders.
Curbing the judiciary
Both Netanyahu and Trump make no secret of their goals to weaken the judiciary to the point where this branch of government has lost its independence.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is constantly proposing new initiatives, including legislation, to increase political power in this area. Efforts to weaken the Supreme Court and pack it with judges supportive of the government continue.
Not a day passes without Trump attacking the Department of Justice for allowing the Special Counsel to do his work. Trump’s friends in the U.S. Congress are encouraged by the White House to explicitly attack top Trump appointees who are demonstrating that the system of justice entrenched in the U.S. Constitution needs to be upheld.
Just a few days ago, Americans watched a House of Representatives public hearing on television as the Deputy Attorney General of the United States, Rod Rosenstein, and FBI Director Christopher Wray were directly charged by Republican Party members of lying under oath.
Attacks on immigrants
Meanwhile, both Netanyahu and Trump are attacking minorities and immigrants as they fortify their xenophobic populist political base.
Trump’s recent decisions to separate parents and children at the U.S. border who are legitimately seeking political asylum, is matched by Netanyahu’s efforts to return to sub-Saharan Africa (seemingly anywhere in Africa) thousands of Sudanese and Eritrians who have sought political refuge in Israel.
The humiliation and desperation explicitly caused by words and actions by Netanyahu and Trump in their countries has brought universal condemnation. But they do not appear to care. They believe that their actions fuel the enthusiasm of their political supporters and this seems to be all that they care about.
Can we be hopeful?
Naomi Chazan candidly describes the multiple attacks on the institutions of democracy in both countries. She sees the situations as grave and getting worse. But, she has battled in many wars over the decades, organized old and young for many important causes to fortify democracy and human rights and she is not giving up now.
She believes that coalitions will form, with important leaders challenging at the highest levels in cooperation with citizens who increasingly recognize the dangers. She is hopeful that young leaders will be ever more prominent to work to end the “democracy recession.”
I admire her optimism, even though hardly a day goes by without Netanyahu and Trump taking another outrageous step to boost their egos, display their power and intimidate critics.
The world has many countries with long histories of authoritarianism. In contrast, Israel and the US have been proud democracies since their founding.
The Binyamin and Donald show threatens to undermine the institutions of democracy in Israel and the US.
In both the US and Israel, the leaders are abusing the trust granted to them by the citizens in public elections.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are determined to undermine political opposition. They seek to divide their opponents.
Despite the impressions that both Trump and Netanyahu so often give of just acting on the spur of the moment, they are following well thought-through strategies.