The succession seems inevitable. We have two politicians from the same party, longtime colleagues with broadly similar political stances, with the surveys emphatic about the result. Sure, polling day is still a few months off, but the opposition candidate is regarded as unelectable — discredited and inexperienced and widely disliked.
Obviously, I’m thinking here about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But some of the same characteristics applied, 20 years ago, to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu.
1995-6 was not a period of remotely orderly political transition. Rabin didn’t routinely complete his time in office and prepare the ground for Peres. Rabin was assassinated, and Peres took over as the interim prime minister and then geared up to cement the would-be peacemaking legacy of his murdered rival-turned-ally. But as with the current overwhelming wisdom surrounding the American elections, the confirmation of Peres appeared near-certain as 1995 turned into 1996. In the traumatic immediate aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu was regarded as the emblematic head of the right-wing hierarchy from whose ranks the assassin had sprung. To publicly support Netanyahu in those first post-murder weeks was to risk being perceived as a tacit empathizer with the forces of darkness.
Four bombings in 10 days in 1996 remade the Israeli national mood… and the political map
Only then, over 10 days from late February to early March 1996, four Hamas suicide bombings in Ashkelon, Jerusalem (twice) and Tel Aviv killed 67 Israelis. And those terror attacks remade the national mood — and the political map. Instead of a perceived near-obligation to vote for Peres in solidarity with the assassinated Rabin and in defense of a teetering democracy, the transformed narrative now held that the much-mourned Rabin, with the greatest respect, had all too evidently and tragically failed to stop Palestinian terrorism; that if Rabin couldn’t do it, the peace-dreamer Peres certainly wouldn’t be able to; and that the hitherto toxic Netanyahu, who had lambasted Rabin for rehabilitating the terrorist Yasser Arafat, had been right all along and was now the only man to restore Israel’s shattered security.
Cross the ocean and flash forward 20 years, and we find Hillary Clinton now pulling further and further ahead of a Donald Trump who, by dint of a relentless assault on an ever-widening series of demographic sectors, finally seems to be managing to destroy his prospects of victory. It’s taken an awfully long time. But the ridiculous candidate, the blowhard populist who was never going to survive long in the Republican primaries, and then was certainly never going to be nominated, and then was absolutely certainly never going to get elected, seems finally to be vindicating all the pundits who’d predicted his implosion.
Yet at this point the tale of Israel in 1996 is worth remembering. Barring some highly unlikely political machination that produces a viable third candidate — and nobody should be writing off the highly unlikely in these days of American political meltdown, when even the most outrageous efforts at satire are outstripped by reality on a daily basis — there are only two people today who are in with a legitimate chance of winning the presidency. And however implausible a victory for Trump would lately seem to have become, the fact is that if anything tremendously dramatic happens to Clinton (legal troubles, health issues, whoknowswhat), or if anything tremendously dramatic happens to America that is seen to deeply discredit Hillary Clinton’s political approach (with the threat of terrorism, heaven forbid, at the head of the list), Trump would be the last man standing.
Israel’s savviest political operator by far, that self-same Netanyahu, still with us 20 years later, has evidently internalized this inconvenient truth. The prime minister accused of having bet wrong last time on a Romney presidency today opts to make no political capital out of allegations that State Department funds went indirectly into the coffers of those who campaigned against him last year. The prime minister criticized in Washington for his election day lament that Israeli Arabs were streaming to the polls today issues an unlikely video encouraging Israeli Arabs to take their rightful place in the Israeli political mosaic. He discourages a Trump visit to Israel. He scurries to defuse his defense minister’s incendiary critique of Obama’s beloved Iran nuclear deal. He moves to quickly wrap up the 10-year military aid package he had previously seemed willing to leave open for the next US administration.
The sheer, stark, untenable, unpredictability of Trump
Weeks ago, Netanyahu may have warily calculated that, were he to finalize the aid deal, this might leave President Obama better placed, as a freshly confirmed defender of Israel’s security, to utilize the end-of-year twilight zone between presidential elections and presidential handover in order to undermine the right-wing government in Jerusalem — by backing discomfiting Security Council resolutions, by speaking at a Paris peace summit, by publishing Palestinian parameters, or some such intervention. Now, clearly, the sheer, stark, untenable unpredictability of Trump, and the unlikely but severe prospect of Trump becoming president, outweighs such nuanced consideration. For in Trump, America has a presidential candidate potentially capable of doing anything and everything — Why don’t we use those nukes? — and demonstrably capable of turning on anyone and everyone — even on the bereaved parents of a casualty of war.
In this new and frankly insane reality, for a tiny Israel so dependent on mighty America amid the seething mass of Middle Eastern unpredictability, the ostensibly blinkered, Palestinian-empathizing, settlement-bashing, Iran-legitimating Barack Obama now appears quite the soul of temperate wisdom. And Hillary Clinton, previously tarred in right-wing Israeli circles for her association with and empowering of the unloved Obama, now looks responsible, serious, adult.
Compared to Donald Trump, indeed, Hillary Clinton now stands for Israel as the near epitome of presidential salvation. He wouldn’t have predicted it, but Netanyahu today likely finds himself hoping against hope that nothing dramatic befalls her, or America — nothing, that is, that might remake the current, Trump-is-finally-finished presidential election thinking.