When the Israeli attorney general filed corruption charges against Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, his political rivals were quick to dredge up a statement he made 11 years ago, when his predecessor as prime minister fell afoul of the law.
“A prime minister steeped up to his neck in investigations doesn’t have a moral or public mandate to make such fateful decisions regarding the State of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the time about Ehud Olmert, who eventually served time in prison. “There is a real, not unfounded fear that he will make decisions based on his own interests of political survivability rather than the normal interest.”
Most politicians have probably made statements at some point that they don’t want to be reminded of. But Mr. Netanyahu’s assertion has the virtue of being indisputable. Justice demands that a politician enjoy the same presumption of innocence as any citizen, but public service demands that a leader place the public interest before his own.
Mr. Netanyahu evinces no intention of heeding himself. Over the many months in which he has been under investigation, he has labored to ensure his political survival, and on the announcement of the indictments he turned viciously on the police and prosecutors, urging Israelis to “investigate the investigators,” warning of an “attempted coup” and vowing not to step down. It was a hard conspiracy theory to swallow, as the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, had been appointed by Mr. Netanyahu and had once been his cabinet secretary.
Mr. Netanyahu is not legally required to resign unless he is convicted, and the cases could stretch for years. The greater problem is that Mr. Netanyahu’s legal issues are entangled in one of the most protracted political crises Israel has known in its tumultuous history. National elections in April and September left the Parliament without a clear leader, and on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu’s chief challenger, Benny Gantz, announced that, like Mr. Netanyahu before him, he had failed to cobble together a coalition that would form a majority in the Parliament. The president, Reuven Rivlin, then told the Parliament to find a leader by Dec. 11 or face another round of elections early next year.
A government of “national unity” between Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud and Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White parties would be a reasonable solution, given that Mr. Gantz, a former military chief of staff, is not overly far from Likud’s basic positions. But he has ruled out teaming up with an indicted prime minister.
Nobody reading about Israel’s travails could fail to see the similarities to the political turmoil in the United States, where President Trump is facing impeachment over charges that he demanded political favors of the Ukrainian president in exchange for giving him public support and military aid. The main charges against Mr. Netanyahu also involve a quid pro quo, that he sought favorable political coverage from media tycoons in exchange for official favors.
The parallel is not entirely chance. Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu have formed strong bonds, and the Trump administration has changed several core American policies toward Israel long demanded by Israeli right-wingers and their American supporters. These include cutting aid to the United Nations agency that helps Palestinian refugees, and recognizing Israeli claims to Jerusalem as its capital, and to the Golan Heights. In the latest and most mystifying such gift, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on Monday that the United States no longer regards Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as a violation of international law. As with the past gifts, Mr. Trump, who likes to boast about his deal-making prowess, achieved no perceptible benefit for the American national interest.
It was not clear whether Mr. Pompeo made his announcement in an 11th-hour bid to bolster Mr. Netanyahu, or to curry favor with American evangelicals who fiercely support Israeli settlers and are a core Trump constituency. Whatever the motive, the declaration did nothing to change the fact that the settlements on occupied territory violate international law. They are not the only obstacle to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians — but they are an obstacle to peace.
Contrary to Mr. Pompeo’s curious logic that he was reversing a policy that had not advanced the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the change served only to further undermine any claim the administration had to serve as a good-faith mediator. And Mr. Pompeo demonstratively failed to help Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Netanyahu’s troubles should not be a cause for schadenfreude among his foes. The legal case against him is not clear-cut, and months of political crisis are no cause for celebration, especially in a country like Israel, which requires strong leadership to cope with the many threats in its neighborhood.
It is for Mr. Netanyahu and the Israelis to find the best path out of the crisis, and to decide whether his reasoning of 11 years ago is valid today. As they wrestle with these issues, it would be best for the Trump administration to mind its own sordid political business and avoid any further measures that diminish the chances for an already elusive peace.