• World
  • Israel

Israel’s Netanyahu Takes a Page From the Authoritarian Playbook

3 minute read

Prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t had an easy time of it lately. Israeli police have recommended bribery charges against him in two cases. In one, he’s accused of accepting cigars and champagne in exchange for political favors. In another, he’s accused of pushing legislation to undermine a newspaper in order to gain more favorable coverage from one if its commercial rivals. Several of his aides have been arrested. In June, prosecutors indicted his wife, a frequent media target for her alleged mistreatment of staff, on fraud charges.

So far, Netanyahu has kept his head above water. It seems he’s learned a trick or two from relative political newcomer Donald Trump.

Netanyahu has long relied on a confrontational style to antagonize the left and beat back challenges from the right, but a move by his coalition on July 19 to declare Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people” takes Trump’s “give your people what they want most” tactic and “never apologize” personal style to a whole new level. The law states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Jews will have democracy, and Arab Israelis will be forced to accept a downgrade.

Critics point out that Israel’s founding Declaration of Independence guaranteed “complete equality of social and political rights” for “all its inhabitants,” no matter their religion. It was of no avail to lawmakers. Those who oppose the law are left to speculate on how it might be used to boost settlement and other policies.

The law is just the latest sign that Netanyahu believes Israel stands in a strong position. When his closest foreign ally, Trump, carried out a fait accompli by ignoring naysayers to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it seemed to represent a form of unconditional backing that Netanyahu never got from former U.S. Presidents.

In the Middle East, the Saudis are too busy antagonizing Iran to make trouble for Israel. Iran, Israel’s most consistent foe, is isolated and under economic pressure. The Russians and Americans are only too happy to elbow the Iranians from their footholds in Syria–and to remain silent as Israel pounds Iranian positions there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a frequent critic of Israel, has sharply denounced the law but is too busy at home to cause more mischief. And while Egypt’s military-dominated government also criticized the law, it won’t do much to help Palestinians who follow Hamas, a group it sees as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it hates.

Palestinians themselves are bitterly divided over their future. Hamas has continued to launch attacks from Gaza that can only bring more suffering, and the Palestinian Authority, in charge of Palestinians elsewhere, has steadily lost public support.

At home, Netanyahu hopes to tighten his grip. Like the right-wing government in Poland, he is working to undermine the authority of his country’s Supreme Court. Like the right-wing regime in Hungary, he has cracked down on civil-society groups. Like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he has expanded his country’s territory–with de facto annexation of parts of the West Bank. Like Trump, he attacks critics in the media to divert attention from investigations of misconduct.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Attorney General has never brought charges against a politician running for office during a campaign. If Netanyahu is indicted, he will probably try to buy time by calling elections this fall or early next year. That’s what political street fighters do.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com