The decision makes Netanyahu, who has dominated his country’s politics for close to two decades, the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted while still in office. And it takes Israel deep into uncharted territory: Netanyahu is vociferously resisting the charges, and the long, tangled legal process behind each case may take years to play out. He faces a fraught political battle, too. With the country possibly holding a general election in March, for the third time in less than a year, Netanyahu could face a primary challenge from within his right-wing Likud party, which he has led effectively unchallenged since 2005. A politician with nine lives, he may have finally run out of them.
“The cases against Netanyahu center on police allegations that the prime minister and his wife, Sara, accepted more than $260,000 worth of luxury goods in exchange for political favors and that Netanyahu interceded with regulators and lawmakers on behalf of two media companies in exchange for positive news stories,” my colleagues explained.
Netanyahu’s indictment ought to unsettle President Trump. Not only is a close Trump ally in legal jeopardy, but his situation echoes that of the American president, who has raged for days from the sidelines of the House’s ongoing impeachment inquiry. What’s happening in Washington is primarily a political, rather than a legal, process, but it also hinges on a similar allegation — that a top leader misused his authority for personal gain.
But neither Trump nor Netanyahu is calmly allowing government institutions to adjudicate on these alleged abuses of power. Instead, they are lashing out, demonizing the independent news media and their political opposition, while casting apolitical civil servants as pitchfork-wielding participants in “witch hunts” and distracting their nationalist supporters with fearmongering about minorities and immigrants. On Thursday, the Israeli prime minister described what was happening to him as a “coup” and called to “investigate the investigators,” the kind of language that Trump has also frequently deployed.
“Their responses are so similar that one is tempted to assume that Trump and Netanyahu are advising each other or reading from the same ‘How to get away with murder’ spinoff playbook,” wrote Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev last month. “Circumstantial evidence shows that Netanyahu, for one, has certainly been inspired by Trump’s no-holds-barred audacity. The prime minister’s willingness to flout norms, ignore traditions and upend Israeli democracy would have been inconceivable had Trump not set a precedent and shown him the way.”
“There are many obstacles that stand in Netanyahu’s way, but he’s been able to maneuver around them so far,” Yael Mizrahi-Arnaud, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, told Today’s WorldView. “So the next few months we’ll have to see how his base and party members feel. Are they willing also to overlook and undermine the rule of law? To keep making excuses and justifications, when the evidence seems clear that he is guilty of crimes that should disqualify him from holding the premiership?”
His situation underscores a new irony in Washington. Trump’s Republican allies have rejected claims that the White House specifically withheld military aid to Ukraine to trigger an investigation in Kyiv of a possible political rival by insisting that the president was more broadly concerned about reports of Ukrainian corruption. Yet, Trump’s track record shows little in the way of acting against perceived cultures of graft overseas, said Nancy Boswell, the former chief executive of Transparency International USA.
“In contrast, Trump and multiple Cabinet officials have expressed robust support for leaders of countries with endemic corruption and anti-democratic policies,” Boswell wrote in The Washington Post. “Trump has embraced, among others, the anti-democratic leaders of Russia, Turkey and Egypt, and even said ‘we fell in love’ of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.” Add his close embrace of a norm-smashing, allegedly corrupt Netanyahu to the list.
Mandelblit, the Israeli attorney general whom Netanyahu appointed, anticipated the heated political reaction to the indictments. “I made this decision with a heavy heart but with a whole heart and a sense of commitment to the rule of law,” he said at a televised news conference. “Law enforcement is not a discretionary matter. It is an obligation that is imposed on us. It is my duty to the citizens of Israel to ensure that they live in a country where no one is above the law and that suspicions of corruption are thoroughly investigated.”
Americans may wish Trump had an attorney general who would tell him the same.