When Donald J. Trump’s fingers punched the 229 characters on his Android cell phone and clicked the ‘send’ button on his Twitter account, he was doing the same thing that he's been doing for years, especially in the past two years since he was sworn in as president of the United States. Trump’s impulsive tweet at 4:57 on August 15th would turn out to be a command that was instantaneously translated into action by one of his closest allies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The tweet that received 119K likes stated: “it would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
As has been the case so many times since his inauguration, the 45th president of the United States was behaving like no other democratic leader. This latest tweet of @realDonaldTrump was not the result of some high-level Oval Office meeting or a decision reached in the tightly secured Situation Room after all options had been considered; it was not a consolidated action plan that took into account all scenarios, including a Plan B if the first plan falters.
Although it involved a foreign country, Trump’s impulsive act that Thursday afternoon in August was purely a domestic political decision. It fit well into his latest campaign aimed at painting four first-term Democratic congresswomen as the face of the Democratic Party. His thinking was that by keeping attention on the ‘squad’ – Latin American Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, African American Ayanna Pressley, Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib, and Somali American Ilhan Omar - he could label the entire Democratic Party as a radical fringe group that is unworthy of winning the 2020 general election.
This tweet was not the first time that Trump had taken on the squad. He had smiled for 13 full seconds back in July while a crowd in
Greenville, North Carolina, chanted “send her back,” a reference to his own demonization of Omar.
Typical Trump Tirade
Like most of his angry bursts, Trump’s twitter tirade was most likely triggered by a Fox News report about Tlaib and Omar’s plan to visit Israel and Palestine on their own — that is, not as part of an official congressional delegation. Of course, coming from the right-wing media, the report consisted only of Israeli talking points — namely, that these congresswomen were not planning to meet any Israeli member of Knesset (MK) and that their entire visit was aimed at attacking America’s most important ally, Israel. Had President Trump just checked with his own Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, he would have found out that the ambassador himself was supposed to meet with the congresswomen, as were several Jewish and Arab MKs as well as Israeli army officers.
Trump’s tweet focused on what he considers important: strength – the executive strength he likes to project and the strength he likes to see in world leaders, be they friend of foe. Allowing these congresswomen entry would be an act of weakness, @readldonaldtrump tweeted, and within hours of this tweet, Netanyahu decided to prohibit the congresswomen from visiting, reversing an earlier announcement by Israeli Ambassador in Washington Ron Dermer, who had stated that Israel would allow the visit “out of respect for the US Congress.” Netanyahu’s decision to deny members of the US Congress entry into a country that is the biggest recipient of US foreign aid was unprecedented.
Mainstream Media and American Jews Push Back
Major Jewish organizations, including the leading pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, were quick to react. Halie Soifer, executive director of the
Jewish Democratic Council of America, said that banning lawmakers “is counterproductive and plays into President Trump’s goal of politicizing support for Israel.” J Street, which defines itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, decried the decision, saying that it was “motivated purely by politics and ideology.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic US presidential candidate, related to the connection between the Israeli leader’s decision and foreign aid. “The idea that a member of the United States Congress cannot visit a nation which, by the way, we support to the tune of billions and billions of dollars, is clearly an outrage, and if Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country to get a firsthand look at what’s going on — and I’ve been there many, many times — but if he doesn’t want members to visit, maybe he can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel,” Sanders told MSNBC TV on August 16.
Trump’s interference in the affairs of a foreign country boomeranged even further when he said Jews who will vote for the Democratic presidential candidate rather than for him are either ignorant or disloyal. When some of Trump’s own defenders tried to finesse the problem by saying that the president didn’t mean disloyalty to a particular state, President Trump, who had referred to Netanyahu as “your prime minister” in a talk to Republican Jews in Las Vegas in April 2019, doubled down on the White House lawn
and insisted that, yes, he did indeed mean disloyalty to Israel.
Troubling Spread of Executive Overreach
This episode, like many involving this president, the Israeli prime minister, and other current populist leaders, reflects a new phenomenon emerging in the leadership of many democratic countries: executive sector overreach.
Meriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term overreach as: 1: to reach above or beyond: OVERTOP; 2: to defeat (oneself) by seeking to do or gain too much; 3: to get the better of, especially in dealing and bargaining and typically by unscrupulous or crafty methods.
Webster’s website actually cites President Trump’s anti-immigration policy as an example of overreach: “today’s [court] order represents a huge victory for the rule of law, against the overreaching anti-immigrant policies of the Trump Administration.” Among its synonyms for overreach, Collins dictionary includes deceive, trick, fool, swindle, mislead, betray, and a host of other negative terms. The question is: What gives populist leaders this sense that they have unlimited power to do what they want without respect for democratic norms and without any concern for the consequences?
Overreach allows leaders to dictate a policy that goes beyond advancing their positions and allows them to attempt to crush their opponents, though often they unwittingly end up undermining their own interests and stated objectives.
One of the most basic beginnings of an act of overreach is information. Although these populist leaders have access to a variety of excellent, well documented, and well researched information, they tend to prefer to base their decisions on reports from media that are friendly to them. Thus, the protagonist’s overreach begins with political spin and wrong or largely falsified information from biased outlets that deviate from professional standards and become part of the political partisan conflict rather than staying above it. These leaders are also intolerant of any criticism and often wage relentless campaigns against media that they consider unfriendly.
Trump and Netanyahu Against the Media
In Trump’s case, we are witness to almost daily attacks against the “failed,” “low-rated” media and repeated use of the Soviet phrase that the media is the “enemy of the people.” Even though the First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, that has not deterred the US president from trying to demote the role of the independent media and the right of citizens to express themselves through protests, including boycotts.
In Netanyahu’s case, a similar -- albeit more nuanced -- effort to castrate the media has taken place behind the scenes. Netanyahu (Bibi) convinced Sheldon Adelson, an American Jewish casino billionaire, to fund the Israel Today daily, which has become known as a Bibi-paper. Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is being charged with corruption, reveals that in Bibi’s efforts to control the Israeli media, he made a deal with the publisher of the Yediot Aharonot daily, according to which, in exchange for favorable coverage, he would pass a law making it illegal to give away free newspapers, thus undercutting Yediot’s competition, the Israel Today freebie. Netanyahu also lashed out at Israel television’s Channel 12 for coproducing and airing the HBO series “Our Boys,” about the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, Netanyahu called for a boycott of the Israeli channel, calling the series “anti-Semitic.” As a result of the vitriol unleashed by Netanyahu and his son Yair against Guy Peleg, Channel 12’s legal affairs correspondent, Peleg received a series of death threats and the station had to hire him a bodyguard.
Daniel Seidmann, a Jerusalem-based Israeli lawyer, said that Netanyahu repeats the very same words used by Trump — “fake news” and “anti-Semitism” — regarding any media content that they don’t like. “Trump and Netanyahu are bonded by a common enemy: the truth. They will not rest until they trivialize it to death.”
Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli columnist, wrote in Yediot Aharonot: “One could have expected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to learn something from the tragic outcome of the incitement that led to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.” He accused Netanyahu of launching “an assault, and a dangerous one, on the freedom of the Israeli media. It includes not only the delegitimization of journalism, but also threatens the lives of journalists and calls for the boycott of media outlets that have fallen from favor.”
No Checks and Balances
Not only do overreach leaders base their actions on bad and uncollaborated information, they also fail to apply the basic checks and
balances that have become part of the tradition in democratic countries. Separation of powers means that the legislative and judicial branches are co-equal branches to the executive. Therefore, the head of the executive branch is obliged to cooperate with the other
branches of government before making a decision of national or international importance. Overreach leaders, however, try to neutralize all other branches of government, whether they be legislative or judicial powers. They also do everything possible to weaken and belittle the power of independent media and civil society.
When the Israeli High Court ruled against barring a person entry into Israel because of their political beliefs, Netanyahu railroaded a law that declared that anyone who supports a movement that calls for boycotts of Israel can be barred entry. This was the pretext used by Netanyahu to refuse entry to the US congresswomen, citing their defense of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which calls on supporters around the world to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel until it recognizes the Palestinian people’s internationally guaranteed right to self-determination. Of course, as part of the disinformation campaign, BDS is
being characterized as an anti-Semitic movement that aims to delegitimize the state of Israel.
The overreach pattern of pursuing radical and extreme solutions based on false information and without much planning, debate, or the application of basic checks and balances tends to have bad and often opposite results to those sought by the leaders in the first place. Without proper advice and counsel, autocrats often fail to consider what would happen if their ‘brilliant’ plans fail. The absence of an alternative or Plan B can make a bad situation even worse.
In the American case, there has been much debate in the past three decades over the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lacked a day after plan, resulting in chaos that reigns in the Middle East to this day. The region is also shaking from Trump’s sudden withdrawal from Syria, with no arrangement in place to fill the vacuum.
In Israel, when the right-wing government conceived of the Nation-State Law, which raises the status of Jews above that of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, little did it expect that the law would produce an angry reaction from the Druze, a loyal community whose members serve in the Israeli army, who organized a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv against the law. Similarly, Israel’s ban of the congresswomen resulted in a sympathetic reaction to them and a validation of their claims that Israel discriminates against Palestinians and Muslims.
Unfortunately, neither Trump nor Netanyahu appear to have learned any lessons from these events, and both continue to behave as if they are made of Teflon, even with legal proceedings hanging over their heads.