Trump and Netanyahu: compare and contrast

It’s a new financial year but, as usual, there’s not much for the Palestinians to celebrate. This is the time that the Israeli government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises to begin the process of annexing Palestinian territory on the West Bank, with the support – which oscillates between overt and tacit – of the Trump administration but of almost no-one else.

Except, as it happens, Australia, which alone among the other democracies refused to support a resolution at the United Nations human rights council condemning the plan. As regular readers might expect, I remain surprised that anyone is surprised by this sort of thing. We have a Trumpist government, so of course its default option is a Trumpist foreign policy.

The rest of world opinion is virtually unanimous on the issue. Nor should that be surprising either: the principle that territory cannot be acquired by force is absolutely fundamental to international law. Breaches of that principle in modern times – Russia in Crimea, Iraq in Kuwait, Morocco in Western Sahara, Indonesia in East Timor – are universally condemned and sometimes reversed.

But those other conflicts were life-and-death matters, always with the sense that big issues were at stake. What’s most striking about the annexation question is the basic lack of seriousness of its proponents. We’re used to this with Donald Trump, of course, but what we’re seeing is that Netanyahu is also a Trumpist – or rather a leading spirit of the strain of conservatism that paved the way for Trump.

For this sort of politics, unseriousness is central. Its approach is tribal; politics is not about dealing with real issues, but about putting on a show to rally the tribe and to demonise its enemies. When faced with a genuine crisis, an issue that can’t be treated on a symbolic level, its practitioners are at a loss. Think of Boris Johnson with the Brexit negotiations, or Scott Morrison with last summer’s bushfires.

Chemi Shalev, writing in Ha’aretz last week, gives a very good account of Netanyahu’s place in US politics:

Throughout his career, but especially since they supported the Obama Iran nuclear deal he so vehemently opposed, Netanyahu has viewed most Democrats as his – and, by extension, Israel’s – enemies. If this was true in 2016, when Netanyahu prayed for Clinton’s defeat, it is doubly true in 2020, when he is invested so heavily in Trump and when Democrats seem to be veering away from their traditional support for Israel, which wasn’t good enough for Netanyahu anyway.

Netanyahu views the rise of leftist Democratic radicalism as a deterministic process that simply corroborates his own prescience. In this way, he absolves Israel and himself of any responsibility for its deteriorating stature among Democrats: It doesn’t matter what Israel will do, he tells confidantes, Democrats will be against us anyway.

But the difference between Netanyahu and Trump is that the Israeli prime minister is actually on the ground in the Middle East; it’s not possible for him to ignore its reality entirely. As I put it at the beginning of Netanyahu’s tenure, more than a decade ago:

Educated in the United States, Netanyahu is closely identified with the neoconservative worldview, but an Israeli leader is in a very different position to an American policymaker. While George Bush’s neocons were able to indulge their geopolitical fantasies by means of the world’s largest military machine, Netanyahu will have to cope in a hostile neighborhood …

That’s why, now that own his timetable has caught up with him, Netanyahu is trying to downplay what’s coming – if indeed anything much at all is coming.

There may come a time when we can have an interesting discussion about the different things that “annexation” might mean and the different implications they might have for the future. But I plan to resist that temptation at least for the moment. To talk about it in those terms now would be to play into the narrative that this is a real and not just a symbolic policy.

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