December 16, 2018

LeBron, Merkel. Netanyahu, Trump. On false comparisons of leaders

Every person has something in common with every other person. Richard Nixon had ears, Che Guevara had ears. Does this make Nixon and Guevara alike? They were, and they weren’t. Both were leaders, both were controversial. Both were born and died in the twentieth century.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and LeBron James are also alike in some ways. Both of them project power and determination. Both are leaders of the groups to which they belong. For Merkel, it is the Christian Democratic Union, her political party. For James it is the Cleveland Cavaliers, his basketball team. Both are leaders of not just their groups but also of their field. She is the most dominant German politician of the decade. He is the most dominant player of the decade.

Still, we are not used to comparing Guevara and Nixon, Merkel and James. But we are used to compare U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. David Rothkopf is among the latest in a long list of pundits, activists and politicians, to compare these two, beginning with a description of Netanyahu:

“His former top aides have said that he is unfit for office. He is surrounded by a swirl of scandal. His family is not helping matters, with crazy statements that are intended to be supportive but just make matters worse. He is dependent on the far right and is so politically vulnerable that he is making decisions that put his entire country at risk. He has targeted groups on the basis of religion and background, which could lead to great unrest”, Rothkopf wrote a few days ago, forgetting the ears and the eyes and the bizarre haircuts, forgetting that Netanyahu, like Trump, is a man born in the Forties.

Comparing Netanyahu and Trump is common, and thus merits scrutiny. Comparing Netanyahu and Trump is common mostly among people who dislike both, and thus merits suspicion.

Pollster James Zogby wrote that they have “a lot in common.” His main theme is about both of them being under investigation. Chemi Shalev compared the duo’s dislike of the news media: “the lethal enemy that Netanyahu is devoting his energy, his resources and his political capital to defeat -– you will know this already if you’ve been listening to Donald Trump –- is the Israeli media” when he called Netanyahu a “slick version” of Trump. Jeff Barak mentioned that “both men have been married three times, are not known for their religious piety or devotion and yet have nevertheless captured the heart of America’s evangelical Christian community.”

Examples of such comparisons are numerous and vary in content. But they all suffer from two similar traits that make them just a little more reliable than the Guevara-Nixon, Merkel-James comparisons.

  1. They use the facts that are highlighted selectively, while omitting inconveniences.
  2. They heavily rely on ideological evaluation masqueraded as fact.

Rothkopf will be the example I will use here to demonstrate this technique, because he is a wise and worthy writer. And I will begin by grouping some of his arguments according to the formula I just presented:

Selective facts, omission of others:

“[Netanyahu’s] former top aides have said that he is unfit for office.” Yes, some of them did (former National Security Advisor Uzi Arad), and others did not (former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror). And many of those who did affiliate with other political camps, and, hence, are unlikely to appreciate his policies. And many of those who did were disappointed by Netanyahu’s decisions that affected their careers. They have personal motivations to denigrate him. More importantly, Israeli voters decided that Netanyahu is fit. They have decided it in four rounds of elections.

“His family is not helping matters.” Weighing the extent to which a family is a burden on a leader, or is helping him, is very complicated. Was Nancy Reagan helping Ronald Reagan or hurting him? Was Hillary Clinton helping Bill Clinton or hurting him (was he helping her when she run for office?). Netanyahu has a family. At times, the behavior of his family members is troubling. These are facts. The rest is assessment. And by the way: I am not sure why this family reminds Rothkopf the family of Trump. The way I see it, the family of Trump is the better part of his administration.

“He is dependent on the far right.” This is a common trick of left-leaning commentators: define all “right” as “far right” and paint your rival as an extremist. Netanyahu relies on the “right,” as is the habit of right wing politicians. If this makes him like Trump; it also makes him like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

“[T]argeted groups on the basis of religion and background.” This is total miscomprehension of Israel’s character. Netanyahu did target groups, but the “basis” was neither religion nor background. The basis was nationality, in the case of Arabs, and political affiliation, in the case of left wingers. Does this make him like Trump? Was Trump the one speaking about people “clinging to religion, guns, xenophobia”? As you might remember, it was Barack Obama. So yes, Netanyahu does target groups, and in many cases this habit of his is ugly and condemnable. Like the similar habit of many other politicians (to be fair to Obama, having used him as example, he did not target other groups as much as Netanyahu).

[B]oth he and Trump have underwater poll numbers.” This is just not true. Trump has underwater numbers, Netanyahu’s numbers are good enough to give him the next round of election.

Ideological evaluation dressed as fact: 

[S]o politically vulnerable that he is making decisions that put his entire country at risk

could lead to great unrest.” This is not true on several levels. First, Netanyahu is not politically vulnerable. Second, most Israelis believe that his decisions are better than most of the alternative suggestions, and, hence, the “putting at risk” part of this analysis is not fact; it’s assessment and not quite convincing. Third, I scratched my head to understand what “great unrest” Rothkopf foresees in Israel and am at a loss. There is no unrest, and scenarios leading to unrest are no more credible for Israel than they are for Belgium.

“[B]rought his country’s democracy to a moment of crisis.” Again, this is a very general statement of little meaning. What crisis? Israel has been dealing with many problems for the last 70 years. Its democracy is stable and functioning. Its institutions are solid. The only “crisis” I know of is the crisis of people dissatisfied with Israel’s policies and political bent.

“[H]as Israel hurtling toward an existential crisis.” See above comment, with the pompous addition of “existential.” What did Netanyahu do to hurtle Israel toward this crisis is unclear to me. As you could see in my latest New York Times article, I do not think that Netanyahu’s rule is “an electrifying” time. It is time of solid stability, not crisis.

“Israel can afford Bibi far less right now than the United States can the unfit, out-of-control leader it has in Trump.” This is true, because Israel always had and probably always will have less room for error. But it points to the exact opposite of what Rothkopf is saying: it is another proof that there is little similarity between Netanyahu and Trump.

“Bibi apparently cares more about his political survival than he does about the well-being of the Jewish people he has taken it upon himself to ‘represent’.” This is a conclusion based on zero evidence. That Netanyahu decided to keep his ties with Trump as tight as possible is not because of his interest in “political survival.” It is because of Israel’s need to have strong ties with a friendly administration. Does it weaken Israel’s claim on representation of the Jewish people? I have no problem admitting that. In fact, I did it last week.

The bottom line is clear by now: Netanyahu and Trump show some similarities, but the differences between them are much greater, and make all attempts as comparing them a clear case of politics dressed as analysis. Here is a short list of some of these great differences, that make their similarities (they rely on the right, they attack the media) pale in comparison:

Trump is a novice; Netanyahu is an experienced leader.

Netanyahu is Prime Minister for a fourth term; Trump barely won one round of general election – he might still prove to be an electoral mishap.

Trump is ignorant about world affairs; Netanyahu is one of the most well informed leaders in the world.

Netanyahu is eloquent in two languages; Trump is ineloquent.

There are many other less important differences between these two leaders. Trump has a foul mouth; Netanyahu does not. Trump is businessman first and foremost; Netanyahu is a career politician. The list goes on and on, and the conclusion is inevitable: much more than there are similarities between Trump and Netanyahu – there are similarities in the outlook and the tactics and the language that of their opponents.