Wily leaders can survive almost anything, as President Donald Trump may show if, as expected, he is impeached by the House and then tried in the Senate. But if his longtime friend, Benjamin Netanyahu, can keep his job as Israel’s prime minister after being indicted on bribery and fraud charges, that would be a miracle befitting the Land of the Bible.
It is often unreasonable to draw parallels between the United States, a relative giant with more than 320 million people, and Israel with fewer than 9 million. Yet watching Netanyahu’s refusal to resign, despite the black mark of being his country’s first prime minister to be indicted while in office, conjures up thoughts of the defiant Trump we are sure to see as the impeachment drama drones on.
Just as the eventual outcome for Trump is unknowable, if we think past the Senate trial to the November 2020 election, Netanyahu’s fate is impossible to predict. He may be pushed out by rebels in his Likud party. On the other hand, he may well hang on as his party’s leader in yet another national election, Israel’s third in fewer than 12 months.
With no one able to put together a government supported by a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, after both the April and September elections, another election seems likely. With Netanyahu either damaged or gone, the results might be different this time. The leader of the year-old Blue and White Party, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, would be favored to win.
However, even as impeachment might not do much harm to Trump, Netanyahu may find that he can shrug off the ignominy of indictment. Israeli voters have known for almost three years that their prime minister was under investigation for alleged corruption, so they may well be used to the idea that a leader whom they trust to keep their country safe has low ethical standards and frankly should be considered crooked.
Many voters, when hearing that the charges include bribery yet with no allegation that Netanyahu received bags full of cash, are wondering: "What’s the big deal?"
It came as no surprise on Thursday, hours after the indictment was announced, when Netanyahu declared that he would not step down. With Trumpian flourish, the prime minister noted that no law requires him to quit and he declared: “The time has come to investigate the investigators.” He claimed that prosecutors and police, aided by leftwing media, had falsified and exaggerated the charges against him.
Since Trump’s 2016 victory, Netanyahu has modeled himself increasingly on the American president. In this year’s campaigns, the prime minister used simplistic slogans to whip up crowds of supporters, and he has been insensitive in fear-mongering about the Israeli Arabs who make up 20 percent of the population.
The alleged quid and the quo in the cases against Netanyahu involve three sets of relationships that he insists were innocent connections and conversations. He is charged with hiding gifts, mostly cigars and champagne, from two wealthy men who sought favors from the government. He is also charged with making deals with a newspaper owner and a telecommunications tycoon, where he would receive favorable news coverage in exchange for policies favoring their companies.
In Israel, as in America, defendants are innocent until proven otherwise. Netanyahu does have the right to stay in power, unless driven out by an election or a guilty verdict in court. There may be a strong feeling that the man who set a record this past summer, by serving more than 13 years as prime minister, is nearing the end of his political road. Yet, in a global political landscape transformed by Trumpian currents, no one can be certain.
Dan Raviv, senior Washington correspondent of i24News, is co-author of “Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.”