The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under investigation and up for reelection, Netanyahu’s kinship with Trump has never been clearer

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the launch of the Likud party election campaign on March 4 in Ramat Gan, Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the launch of the Likud party election campaign on March 4 in Ramat Gan, Israel. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — He is accused of pandering to far-right elements previously considered beyond the pale even for many members of his own party, while sowing division to win votes.

He has started his own Internet broadcasts to circumvent traditional media outlets he brands “fake news,” while remaining preoccupied over their coverage of him.

Deeply concerned about leaks and disloyalty, he has tapped a team centered on family members to run his campaign.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was using Trump-style messaging and Trump-style tactics long before there was a President Trump. But as the longtime Israeli leader seeks a fifth term in elections next month, the similarities between the two polarizing figures — both under investigation for possible wrongdoing in what each has labeled a “witch hunt” — are being thrown into ever starker relief.

President Trump has praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the early days of his presidency, and has stood by him amid a corruption scandal. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“They are twins. It’s unbelievable,” said Ben Caspit, author of “The Netanyahu Years.” “You see it in their style, you see their behavior, even their language.”

Netanyahu, or Bibi as he is commonly known, long cast the “hostile media” as the enemy — before cribbing Trump’s favored term, “fake news” — and he has used what critics call scare tactics to galvanize his base. Political analysts say that Trump’s success has inspired the Israeli leader to push further. 

Now, with an election weeks away, the rhetoric is turbocharged, with Netanyahu sharpening his allegations that left-wing Israelis are conspiring to oust him through a corruption investigation because they can’t beat him at the ballot box. The Israeli attorney general notified Netanyahu’s legal team last month of plans to charge the prime minister with fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three criminal cases, pending a hearing in which he can present his defense.

Netanyahu’s campaign, meanwhile, has become racially charged as he accuses his main rival of planning to form a governing coalition with Arab Israeli parties.

During his campaign, Netanyahu has been keen to stress his strong relationship with Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there. Huge campaign billboards alongside Israeli highways show the two men shaking hands. “Netanyahu, in a different league,” they read. 

When the prime minister appeared on national television hours after the attorney general announced that he would proceed with the indictment process, Netanyahu’s first point was to mention his strong relationship with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Netanyahu has also unleashed a stream of attacks on the judiciary and the police. Critics say his complaints of unfair treatment are delegitimizing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and undermining Israeli democracy. There are echoes of Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Justice Department.

For Trump, “there is no collusion” with Russia. For Netanyahu, the similarly oft-repeated refrain is “there will be nothing because there is nothing,” in reference to the potential criminal charges against him.

Both leaders have closed ranks as their closest advisers and confidants have given evidence against them in recent years. Just as Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen publicly testified against the president, three of Netanyahu’s closest advisers have agreed to give evidence against the Israeli leader.

“Over the years, the suspicion and paranoia and the belief that everyone is conspiring against him has become more and more acute, and right now we see that he lost almost all of his closest aides,” Caspit said. 

Today, Netanyahu is running his reelection campaign with a tightknit team that includes his wife, Sara, and his oldest son, Yair, known for his extreme Internet posts. 

Bibi TV

Almost every evening as the April 9 election approaches, Netanyahu appears on his newly launched daily webcast, “Likud TV.”

In one recent broadcast he appeared via video link with its presenter, Eliraz Sade, a reality-television star, as they watched recorded clips of supporters of the prime minister’s Likud party telling him what a great job he has done for the country over the past decade.

“Do you have such time to watch these videos with me?” Sade had asked the prime minister. 

“Of course I have time,” Netanyahu replied. “This is exactly what we don’t see in the media.”

There is a striking similarity to Trump’s “Real News Network,” dubbed Trump TV and launched to support his 2020 reelection campaign by highlighting his achievements. These broadcasts, along with an aggressive use of social media by both leaders, offer a way to elude the mainstream media. And both are ready to incite against it.

At a raucous rally to launch his campaign earlier this month, Netanyahu’s die-hard supporters threw insults at the assembled press as the prime minister attacked it. 

“How biased it is. How false it is. I know how much it infuriates you,” he said, blaming his legal troubles on a conspiracy by the media and the left. In his telling, the attorney general has bent to their pressure.

Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American pollster who was an adviser to Netanyahu in the early 1990s, called it “an Israeli version of ‘deep state’ — the deep-left effort to unseat Netanyahu.”

Years before Trump was near the White House, Netanyahu was mastering the art of galvanizing his base of largely Mizrahi Jews, the working-class Israelis whose families hail from the Middle East and feel neglected by the more privileged Ashkenazis, or Jews of Europe ancestry.

Much as Trump, a wealthy businessman, has offered a message that resonates with parts of blue-collar America, the Mizrahim have stuck with Netanyahu loyally despite his Ashkenazi background, 

“He was there first, so he was doing it first,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former chief of staff and media adviser for Netanyahu, describing the way he speaks to his political base. “The ones who support Netanyahu from the right wing, they were the ones that felt discriminated against, that no one counted, and Netanyahu uses it to say, ‘Look, they are doing it to us again.’ ”

But Trump has also provided inspiration for Netanyahu, Caspit said. 

“When Trump won, against all odds, Trump was a totally different league or ballgame,” Caspit said. “He did things Bibi didn’t even dream to do.”

The farther right

In the United States, Trump has embraced far-right figures, such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has repeatedly made remarks widely rebuked as racist even by members of his party and has declined to criticize white supremacists for their role in violence in Charlottesville in 2017. 

In Israel, Netanyahu created a stir last month by encouraging a political agreement to unite three right-wing parties, including a faction made up of followers of the late Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist American Israeli rabbi who was banned from Israeli politics for his racist opinions. American Jewish groups that usually refrain from criticizing Israel’s leaders expressed their dismay.

Netanyahu defended the move, saying it was part of a strategy that would allow him to form a governing coalition if he is reelected.

The prime minister’s critics say he is pushing divisive politics harder than ever.

He declared on social media last week that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and them alone” — a statement that drew fire for casting the country’s 1.8 million Arabs and other minorities as second-class citizens. 

Meanwhile, he is using a new slogan — “It’s either Bibi or Tibi” — essentially tapping suspicion of Israel’s Arab minority in arguing that his main rival, former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz, might have to team up with longtime Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi to form a governing coalition. 

The accusation that Gantz might have to depend on Israeli Arab parties is part of a broader strategy to paint him and his party as left-wing. Gantz says he is neither left or right. 

Dan Avnon, chair of the department of political sciences at Hebrew University, said: “When Trump goes around America saying ‘Lock her up,’ it’s similar to what Netanyahu is trying to do with Gantz. For sure there are similarities there.”

Gantz’s campaign has accused the prime minister of using outright lies to smear him. In recent weeks, Netanyahu has repeated a claim that Gantz, who was chief of staff during the 2014 Gaza Strip war, attended a memorial for “a thousand Hamas terrorists” on the anniversary of the conflict. The claim prompted Israeli newspapers to run fact checks, concluding that the event Netanyahu referred to was a “Concert without Borders” attended by Jewish and Arab Israelis.

“Netanyahu continues spreading lies and incitement,” Gantz’s rival Blue and White party said in a statement. “He will say anything to divert the conversation from the investigation and the indictment he now faces.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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