Newt and Bibi: Two peas at a podium?

Newt and Bibi: Two peas at a podium?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Hard as it may be to believe, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have a lot in common as political actors. Unfortunately for both of them, that may not be very flattering.

Both men are running for election or reelection to the highest elected office in their respective countries. Both present themselves as conservative candidates and both appear frequently to be deeply distrustful, if not dismissive, of Arabs and Palestinians. Both have received dramatic financial assistance from Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson. They have both expressed serious dislike for the media; Gingrich and Netanyahu prefer to attack what they perceive to be biased messengers in the media rather than explain their positions. Finally, they both have very thin skins when it comes to criticism.

Israeli prime ministers have always been sarcastic and cutting in attacking their opponents. They enjoy dismantling ideas and programs presented by the opposition, but they especially revel in attacking the media.

Like America, Israel has a wide open press corps (except when it comes to national security). Israeli media are exceedingly aggressive and personal. Editorial boards bar no holds and border consistently along the line of slander and rumor. To function in that environment, politicians must be able to take it as well as dish it out. “Keeping it in the family” ends when the media enters the discussion.

Thus a report that Netanyahu considers The New York Times and Ha’aretz Israel’s “two main enemies” is not surprising (nor is it surprising that Netanyahu denied making the comments). Netanyahu is frustrated with the media which he feels are far too critical of him and his government.

Gingrich had a similar moment at a debate last week when he lashed out at CNN reporter John King for asking a question about Gingrich’s former wife. Asked to comment on Marianne Gingrich’s allegations that Newt had sought an “open marriage,” Gingrich assailed King, his network, and the “destructive, vicious, negative nature of much” of the “elite media.” David Gergen called Gingrich’s reply “one of the harshest attacks we’ve had on the press that I can remember in a long, long time.” Nevertheless, the South Carolina primary results suggest that it played very well among conservative voters.

Even more interesting is the unusually close relationship both Netanyahu and Gingrich have with the billionaire Adelson. For years the American casino magnate and his Israeli-born wife Miriam have supported Netanyahu’s political career. Adelson, among his other ventures, is the publisher of a right-wing, free Israeli tabloid, Yisrael Hayom, which is strongly pro-Netanyahu.

Having backed Gingrich for years, the Adelsons are pushing their assistance to another level. According to the Daily Beast, Adelson gave the first million dollars to a Gingrich PAC in 2006, eventually donating nearly $13 million to two PACs supporting Newt’s White House bid. Just this month Adelson gave the SuperPAC “Winning Our Future” $5 million for its recent efforts in South Carolina; his wife is reportedly giving the pro-Gingrich SuperPAC an additional $5 million to help deliver Gingrich’s message in Florida.

While the former speaker has a long record of support for Israel, his recent statement calling the Palestinians an “invented people” certainly shows a dramatic hardening in his views, very much consistent with some of Adelson’s extreme right-wing positions. Previously, Gingrich’s statements concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were far more constructive, albeit hard-line.

Both Israel and the United States are looking for leaders who can guide them out of their current states of crisis and malaise. Netanyahu and Gingrich, with their diversionary attacks on the media and the potentially corrosive effect of campaign donations, suggest that they probably should keep looking.

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