In the wake of the Mar-a-Lago search, Donald Trump’s legal woes have become the biggest issue in the country. There are at least four ongoing criminal investigations that touch Trump and his business interests, any one of which could eventually yield an indictment.
So what happens if, for the first time ever, a former US president is brought up on criminal charges? There are many potentially instructive cases in other democracies, from the corruption conviction of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the dubious jailing of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But perhaps the most direct parallel, and one of the most disturbing, is the ongoing trial of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Politically, Trump and Netanyahu are very much alike: charismatic populists who have transformed established center-right parties into increasingly radical cults of personality. Netanyahu was prime minister for Trump’s entire presidency and emerged as one of his closest allies on the global stage, even putting Trump on one of his campaign posters.
Both men stand accused of serious anti-democratic abuses while in office. Both have responded with nearly identical campaigns against the legal authorities, accusing investigators of engaging in a “witch hunt” at the behest of liberal elites. And both appear likely to contest their country’s next general election — Israel’s in November, the United States’s in 2024 — with decent odds to win.
One difference between the two: Netanyahu is on trial now. Given the right-wing-driven, antidemocratic drift in both countries, the Israeli experience of holding a former populist leader accountable may well be instructive for Americans.
When I visited Israel this summer, the effects of the Netanyahu trial on the country were plainly on display. The proceedings have polarized Israeli politics and pushed Netanyahu and his followers to embrace a more aggressive antidemocratic stance.
“The democratic process in Israel has reached a crisis stage,” Efraim Halevy, the former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, told me. “You have people speaking out, advocating the use of [political] violence.”
In the United States, where extreme polarization already looks like a democratic extinction-level event, the pressures of a Trump trial could cause even graver damage. It could further intensify the GOP’s anti-democratic descent while galvanizing a radical fringe that has already responded to a mere search warrant with violence.
None of this means that prosecuting Netanyahu was the wrong decision, or that Trump’s grip on the GOP should be a get-out-of-jail-free card. There are powerful reasons to believe that a failure to prosecute serious offenses can itself damage democracies, perhaps irreparably.
But the Israeli example should inform Americans of the risks of a Trump prosecution — and prompt the US to brace for more political turmoil and discord if the former president does go on trial.
How Netanyahu’s trial changed Israel
Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to face charges.
In 2008, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chose to resign amid mounting legal woes, triggering a 2009 election that Netanyahu would (ironically) win. Olmert’s subsequent trial and conviction on corruption charges had little effect on Israeli politics, largely a sideshow in a country that had moved on. The Olmert affair was, in some ways, a model of how democracies should hold elites accountable for criminal behavior.
The Olmert prosecution did not lead to a political meltdown because, at the time, Israeli politics were not especially polarized along partisan lines. While there were major disagreements among the parties in the Knesset (parliament) on everything from peace with the Palestinians to the proper role of Judaism in public life, these divides did not manifest in the sort of rigid and all-encompassing feuds between rival camps that would conquer Israel by the 2020s.
So what changed over that time?
Netanyahu became prime minister.
There have long been signs of the Likud leader’s willingness to push the bounds of normal politics. After his first term in office, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu blamed the press for his defeat in the 1999 elections: “I need my own media,” as he put it at the time. After regaining the top job in 2009, in elections held as a result of Olmert’s resignation, he allegedly used his new position to create it.
His most notable reported offense was a deal with the parent company of Walla, a major online news outlet, in which Netanyahu was accused of approving a lucrative merger in exchange for more favorable coverage. He also reportedly attempted to reach a similar agreement with the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, in which he would receive better coverage in exchange for curbing the circulation of competitor Israel Hayom (a free, pro-Netanyahu tabloid founded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson).
Beginning in 2016, while Netanyahu was still in office, Israeli police began investigating these allegations of media tampering — as well as evidence that the prime minister and his wife Sara had received inappropriate gifts. After two years of inquiry, Israel’s top prosecutor formally recommended that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit file bribery and breach of trust charges against the prime minister. Mandelblit, a right-winger and former Netanyahu deputy, agreed. The trial began in March 2020 and is ongoing today, with no clear end date in sight.
Netanyahu has responded by going to war with the legal system.
In Israel, Supreme Court justices are appointed by a panel that includes current justices and representatives of the Israeli Bar Association; the attorney general is appointed to a six-year term and serves regardless of which parties are in power. This limits politicians’ ability to capture the judiciary for partisan ends, as has happened in the United States, but it renders the legal system vulnerable to populist arguments that it represents an elite cabal rather than the actual will of the people.
Elements of the Israeli right had been making this case since at least 1979, when the Supreme Court ruled that a planned West Bank settlement called Elon Moreh was unlawful. A series of liberal Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s accelerated the right’s anti-court turn. In the years prior to the Netanyahu investigation, legislators from his center-right Likud party proposed a series of bills designed to bring the Israeli legal system under tighter political control.
At that point in his career, Netanyahu was positioning himself as the court’s guardian against such right-wing assault. “In the last few months, I buried every law that threatens the independence of the [judicial] system,” he said in 2012. “I will continue to do so.”
But after prosecutors began investigating him, and especially after the indictment was filed, Netanyahu embraced the right-wing ideas he had once rejected. Whereas 2012 Netanyahu said that an independent court was “what enables the existence of all other democratic institutions,” 2020 Netanyahu was claiming Israel was “no democracy” but rather “a government of bureaucrats and jurists.” He and his allies began floating bills that would immunize incumbent prime ministers from prosecution, allow parliamentary majorities to override court rulings, limit police authority to present the evidence against him publicly, and politicize the process for appointing Supreme Court justices.
The effort to hold Netanyahu accountable for anti-democratic offenses, in short, prompted him to launch a new round of attacks on the legal system and to fully embrace bare-knuckled right-wing populism as a governing doctrine. Netanyahu transformed Likud in his image, forcing critics in leadership like Gideon Sa’ar, his longtime No. 2 in the Likud hierarchy, out of the party ranks.
Today, Israel’s historic center-right party has become a far-right vehicle for Netanyahu’s personal ambitions. And Israel has been thrown into political crisis.
By the end of 2022, Israel will have held five national elections in the past three and a half years. Israel has been forced to hold so many because the electorate remains stubbornly divided on the question of Netanyahu’s fitness for office. This has made it extremely difficult for anyone to form a government, forcing the country to return to elections in the hope that this vote will finally deliver one side a decisive majority.
Note that this polarization does not really track traditional policy divides, like economics or the conflict with the Palestinians. The anti-Netanyahu camp, which briefly governed Israel in a rickety coalition that collapsed this June, includes parties not only from the left and center but also several on the right — some of which are led by former Cabinet ministers in Netanyahu-led governments (like Sa’ar). The only thing that unites this fractious group is distaste for Netanyahu and concern about how far he’d go in the name of staying out of jail.
“Benjamin Netanyahu is not an option,” Elina Bardach-Yalov, a member of the Knesset for the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, told me. “He’s not thinking in terms of the nation, he’s thinking in terms of his personal issues.”
The pro-Netanyahu forces, by contrast, represent the former prime minister’s allies of convenience — those factions that had their own reasons for supporting a leader who has set his sights on bringing the legal system to heel.
“As his legal situation deteriorated in the face of multiple investigations (and this happened before his trial officially opened), he became increasingly reliant on religious and nativist right-wing parties that sought to weaken the legal system for their own reasons,” said Noam Gidron, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “At a certain point, Netanyahu’s personal incentives to attack the legal system were at least to some degree fused with his political, coalitional interests.”
What you have, then, is a country that has been incapable of forming a stable government for four years due to a profound split in the electorate: a divide not over economics, security, or cultural issues, but over one man’s willingness to attack democracy’s guardrails in the name of protecting himself.
What can Netanyahu tell us about Trump?
Alon Tal is an American-born Israeli environmental activist and politician, currently representing the centrist Blue-and-White party in the Knesset. When we met in Jerusalem, he painted Netanyahu as an existential threat to Israeli democracy, describing him as a “cancer” on the Israeli body politic that would metastasize if he wins November’s election.
“The very soul of Israel: that’s the stakes. They could not be higher,” he told me.
The cancer metaphor is not original: Tal self-consciously drew it from a Thomas Friedman column written about Trump just before the 2020 elections. The United States began displaying morbid symptoms well before the current criminal investigations into Trump. Extreme polarization, the radicalization of a major center-right party, the restructuring of politics around one man: All of this is old hat in the United States.
And yet, the Netanyahu trial is instructive, showing the near-infinite capacity for supporters of far-right populists to follow their leaders into the abyss.
In many ways, the dynamics of Netanyahu’s support in Israel are similar to Trump’s in America. Netanyahu developed a deep emotional connection with a particular set of voters — primarily Jews of Middle Eastern descent, called Mizrahim — by appealing to their discontent with a traditional European-descendant elite that they see as too liberal, unpatriotic, and corrupt. This group of conservative Mizrahi voters has long been Likud’s base; Netanyahu’s bond with them allowed him to defenestrate his internal opposition and pull the party wherever he wanted it to go.
When your base is animated by anti-elite sentiment, it’s not hard to portray any attempt at accountability as a conspiracy. Netanyahu has positioned himself as the champion of Israeli democracy, despite being accused of undermining it, precisely because his base is inclined to believe the worst about the people in charge. The Supreme Court Netanyahu once championed became the enemy because he said so; his word has more legitimacy than the institutions of the state itself.
Now, Netanyahu is running for prime minister on the theory that he is being persecuted — and he has a reasonable chance to win. If he wins, there is every expectation that he will do something to protect himself, be it passing a law immunizing himself from prosecution or firing the attorney general and appointing a more pliant replacement.
For those of us who support a serious inquiry into Trump’s behavior, the Israeli experience should be sobering. It should dash any hope that a trial, no matter how strong the prosecution’s case, could resolve the political question of Trump in any definitive sense.
Trials of public officials only work as mechanisms of building political consensus if there is a deeper underlying agreement — a shared belief that the legal system itself is worthy of respect. Both Netanyahu and Trump have shattered that consensus, if it ever existed. Criminal proceedings won’t resolve bitter polarization around these leaders; it will deepen it.
And the more Trump faces personal risk, the more he will see a return to the White House as his best lifeline — the presidency being the only office in America whose holder is formally shielded from criminal prosecution. There is every reason to believe that the GOP would back him as fully as Likud has backed Netanyahu, meaning that the 2024 presidential election would likely resemble the 2022 Israeli contest: a bitterly fought affair defined by whether one thinks that the former leader is victim or villain.
And things could get uglier still. In late July, a Likud activist publicly called for the staff of the state prosecutor’s office to be executed — a comment he later played off as a joke, but hardly a laughing matter given an increase in death threats against the leaders of anti-Netanyahu parties. In the United States, the Mar-a-Lago raid has already led to a rise in extreme anti-government rhetoric from Republicans and a spike in violent threats against the FBI.
None of this is to say that Netanyahu and Trump should be able to get away with crimes. In Netanyahu’s case, attempting to corruptly secure control over the press is itself a major threat to democracy; allowing the credible allegations against him to go uninvestigated would set a profoundly dangerous precedent. In the United States, Trump enjoyed functional impunity for four years while in office — and that culminated in his attempt to overturn a legitimate election and incite a riot at the Capitol. The long-term benefits of accountability might well outweigh the short-term risks of instability.
But to be able to conduct this cost-benefit analysis, we need to be clear-eyed about where exactly the current investigations are taking us: not toward any kind of Hollywood climax, where the Trump era ends with a guilty verdict, but an intensified and potentially more dangerous politics.
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