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We Can Be Sure: Trump Is Watching Netanyahu Very Closely

What’s happening in Israel right now is a cautionary tale for the United States.

Netanyahu and Trump in Tel Aviv in 2017
Kobi Gideon/GPO/Getty Images
Netanyahu and Trump in Tel Aviv in 2017

In some political ways, Israel resembles the United States in miniature. It’s almost perfectly split between a coalition of secular leftists and moderates and religious conservative nationalists. The center-left coalition is broadly committed to democracy and civil rights, while the Netanyahu-led Likud has worked overtime to consolidate permanent power at the expense of Palestinians, women, LGBTQ people, Arab Israelis, and secular Jews. For most of the past 20 years, Bibi Netanyahu’s party has controlled the Israeli government and has encouraged settlers to absorb Palestinian land. The result is that there is no longer any conceivable path to a two-state solution.

Now Israel is at a breaking point but not over a peace agreement. The far-right Netanyahu government has passed legislation that effectively neuters the Israeli court system. This new law forbids the court from overturning any laws passed by the Knesset for “unreasonableness.” Israel does not have a constitution the way the U.S. does, creating fewer clear lines of governmental authority and fewer formal checks and balances. It also allows Netanyahu to avoid prosecution indefinitely, even though he is under indictment like Donald Trump.

The upshot, however, is that the Netanyahu government has free rein to do basically anything it wants, and what it wants mirrors the U.S. religious right in its extremism. His Cabinet is full of people who have been branded terrorists or violent extremists by previous, more moderate, Israeli governments. These Cabinet members support stripping Arab citizens of the right to vote, expulsion of Arab citizens, annexing the rest of the West Bank, increasing settlements, taking over the Al Aqsa Mosque, and even razing it. His coalition partners have called for ending protections for LGBTQ citizens as well, while creating a religious right to discriminate.

Israelis have reacted strongly to what amounts to a naked power grab. These changes have led to the largest protests in the nation’s history. Riot police have responded with beatings, water cannons, and the use of chemical irritants. Medical professionals are threatening a strike, and over 10,000 reserve officers are refusing to drill, including many Israeli Air Force pilots. The move has brought the U.S. to uncharacteristically offer mild rebukes, which is telling given the lengths to which the U.S. has in the past avoided criticizing Israel. Like other strongmen, dictators, and autocrats, Netanyahu and his coalition would very much like to see Trump return to power.

If Trump were to return to power, multiple sources (including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist) are reporting that he and his people have every intention of seizing unitary power in ways that are very similar to what Netanyahu is doing, to implement highly unpopular policies and avoid leaving power in perpetuity. These include gutting the federal government to install loyalists, withdrawing from NATO, instituting a host of anti-LGBT laws and policies, banning abortion (with no functional exceptions), and using the military domestically. Worse, Trump clearly plans on weaponizing the Department of Justice, the FBI, the IRS, and every other federal agency against his enemies. Similarly, people associated with extremist movements like the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys will be allowed to flourish inside and outside of government.

All of this will be hideously unpopular with the public, but the reality of the GOP and Likud is the same: They don’t care if it is unpopular because ultimately the goal is not to be popular or have a democracy, it is to win once, rig the game, and then implement their vision for the country that reflects the wishes of their base, everyone else be damned.

History says they’ll probably get away with it too.

The women’s marches of 2017 did exactly zero to slow Trump down, and now abortion is banned throughout the U.S. and it’s legal to discriminate against basically anyone based on religious beliefs. In Belarus, protests over the rigged 2020 election went on for 10 months and accomplished zero. Alexander Lukashenko is still a dictator for life, while latched firmly to Vladimir Putin and Russia. Similarly, opposition protests in other competitive authoritarian regimes such as Turkey, Hungary, and Russia have had zero impact on government decision-making.

The only times when protests succeed are when police forces abandon highly unpopular politicians to the mercies of the irate mob (the 2013 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine and the 1989 Romanian Revolution come to mind). The conclusion is simple: Protests against authoritarian regimes rarely if ever have any effect unless they turn violent enough that the survival of the regime is threatened because its security forces decide saving the autocrats isn’t worth it. When the security forces are deeply ideologically aligned with the ruling party, though, such a scenario is highly unlikely.

The U.S. and Israel have one other thing in common: guns. While there is no right to bear arms in Israel, most members of the military and the reserves carry their service weapons. In recent years, it has become significantly easier for civilians in Israel to own a handgun as well, under the theory that a good guy with a gun is the fastest way to stop a bad guy with a gun. However, it sets the stage for answering the question: What happens when a government goes fully autocratic in a country where access to guns is the rule and not the exception?

Given the history of democracies dying with barely a whimper, the futility of protests without high levels of violence, and the Israeli police force’s close relationship to Hebrew nationalism, it seems highly unlikely that protests against Netanyahu will succeed. Republican strategists will likely be watching this situation closely and learning lessons from it. If Netanyahu succeeds in riding it out the way Lukashenko did in Belarus, it gives them the green light to go all in on transforming the U.S. as rapidly as possible once Trump is reelected. The situations share too many similarities to ignore.