A major democracy fights to maintain the rule of law — this time, it’s Israel
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit charged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with three counts of corruption on Nov. 21.
At the same moment, former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee about the Trump Administration’s efforts to influence Ukraine to seek investigations into his political opponents.
The speech and actions of Mandelblit and Hill demonstrated that the two democracies were fighting to maintain the rule of law.
“The public interest requires that we live in a country where no one is above the law,” Mandelblit said when announcing the indictment.
As a rhetoric scholar, I noticed immediately that the announcement echoed House Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi declaring the start of the formal impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump by saying “No one is above the law.”
Trouble for Bibi
Netanyahu, called “Bibi,” has a history of successfully fighting off charges of corruption. He has long been known as “the magician” in Israel for his political skills and ability to survive challenges.
Netanyahu is expected to request that the Israeli parliament grant him immunity from the prosecution.
While it is possible he could remain prime minister, there are potential legal and political challenges that might prevent him from retaining power.
He could simply lose support from his political allies – including the country’s president – for his continued leadership. He has already been threatened by fellow party member Gideon Saar with a leadership challenge within their party, Likud.
Or his tenure could be limited by another factor. Israel may face yet another general election in light of repeated failures since April by Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, to form a coalition government. The day after Netanyahu was indicted, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin informed the parliament, called the Knesset, that if a new prime minister wasn’t named in 21 days, elections would be called.
Similarly, President Trump faces an uncertain future because of Democrats’ efforts to hold him to account in their impeachment investigation.
He may be impeached by the House, declared not guilty by the Senate and reelected – or voted out of office – in 2020.
He could be re-elected even if the Senate convicted him and removed him from office.
Stability for democratic systems
Israel, like the United States, has an imperfect democracy, rated at 78 out of 100 by democracy advocate Freedom House.
Minorities and Palestinians face restrictions on their rights in Israel, while the rest of the population enjoys free speech, a free press and social media that offer many different points of view.
Among the gatekeepers of Israel’s democracy are Attorney General Mendelblit, a member of the executive branch, who was willing to indict a sitting prime minister.
Israel’s 22 newspapers, representing the spectrum of opinions held by Israelis, are likewise gatekeepers and trustees of Israeli democracy.
A recent editorial in the leading newspaper, Haaretz, about who should head the government was headlined “Anyone but Bibi.”
Haaretz’ editorial board wrote, “the possibility of a national unity government that includes Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fueled by incitement, is the worst option of all. To Netanyahu’s ‘credit’ it should be said that he is doing everything in his power to remind the public of who he is and the poisonous materials from which another government headed by him would be composed.”
Netanyahu is charged with engaging in breach of trust, fraud and bribery.
The four-day pre-trial indictment hearing that preceded the filing of charges was well-covered by the Israeli and international media.
Israeli society is polarized, which poses a serious challenge to the gatekeepers and systems of Israeli democracy.
A poll conducted one month before the October 2019 Israeli election showed that Netanyahu was backed by a majority, with 60% saying he improved Israel’s international standing. They see him as a canny politician who biographer Anshel Pfeffer says has developed a careful foreign policy that does not favor military action, and an economic policy that has created a flourishing Israeli marketplace.
The same poll said 49% of Israelis saw him as lacking integrity.
Mandelblit was appointed attorney general by Netanyahu. His decision to indict a sitting prime minister is evidence that he resisted and escaped the powerful gravity of polarization.
Mandelblit moved forward with the indictment the day after Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz, the head of the Blue and White party, failed to form a government.
The indictment introduces new and tricky legal and political questions that were in the distance, but not an immediate issue, in the first two 2019 elections. If Netanyahu asks the Knesset for immunity from prosecution, will the members grant the request? Should the indictment influence how voters assess the candidates?
In the U.S., voters may well cast their votes next year for a president who has been impeached by the House.
Netanyahu said his indictment was the product of “false accusations” and a systematically “tainted investigation.”
Whether attempts by gatekeepers and citizens to hold the two leaders accountable – either by law or elections – will be effective is an open question.