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The best precedent for Trump’s indictment is (gulp) Israel

The recent chaos in Israel shows how Trump’s indictment could set America aflame.

A protester in a crowd holds a sign above her head that reads, “Stop trying to make dictatorship happen. It’s not gonna happen.”
A March 18 protest in Tel Aviv against Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul.
Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The indictment of Donald Trump Thursday night is an American first: No president, sitting or former, has ever been indicted on criminal charges. But in peer democracies, it’s far from unheard of. France, Portugal, South Korea, Croatia, and Israel have all indicted former presidents and prime ministers.

Of these countries, the closest parallels — and the most disturbing — come from contemporary Israel, a country that just this week was paralyzed by a general strike and some of the largest protests in the country’s history. Israel’s crisis, the gravest domestic upheaval in its history, was in large part caused by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to his indictment on a series of corruption-related charges.

After winning Israel’s election in November 2022, Netanyahu — who had previously been in office in 1996-1999 and 2009-2021 — swiftly set about pushing a series of new laws imposing tighter political control on the legal system. The proposals, unveiled earlier this year, would deliver Netanyahu’s coalition partners on the far right a long-desired leash to rein in the (relatively) liberal Supreme Court. It also gives Netanyahu powers that he could use to nullify the case against him.

The reaction has been a national uprising: about three months of massive and disruptive street protests that forced Netanyahu to temporarily postpone passing his power grab. But a postponement is not full climbdown, and Netanyahu’s ongoing trial gives him every reason to try and ram through the bill in the coming months.

Being indicted pushed Netanyahu to radical lengths: a willingness to partner with extremists and pursue anti-democratic policies that he had previously decried, all in the name of staying out of prison.

We should expect no less from Trump and his supporters.

Politically, Trump and Netanyahu are very much alike: charismatic populists who have transformed established center-right parties into 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.

General Elections In Israel
A Trump/Netanyahu campaign poster in Tel Aviv during the 2019 campaign.
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Both men stand accused of serious anti-democratic abuses while in office. Both have responded with nearly identical campaigns against legal authorities, accusing investigators of engaging in a “witch hunt” at the behest of liberal elites. Trump and his allies in the GOP are furious, with virtually everyone in the party from the former president on down describing the indictment as a politically motivated attack from Democrats that demands a response.

We saw where raging conservative anger at the legal and political system led on January 6, 2021; prominent Republicans are already calling for ignoring the law and even retaliating by prosecuting Democrats. There’s an entire presidential election cycle left to go and potentially more indictments coming down the line.

None of this is to say that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg should not have pursued an indictment if he truly believes the evidence warrants it. Influential people cannot be above the law in a democracy; in Israel, the case against Netanyahu is serious and speaks to the heart of his anti-democratic behavior during his last tenure in office. It was right to prosecute Netanyahu, and it could very well be right to prosecute Trump. We’ll know more once the charges themselves are unveiled.

But the chaos in Israel should serve as a warning: Under political conditions like those in the US, going after the country’s most influential and polarizing political figure can lead to unpredictable and potentially devastating consequences. Americans should once again be preparing for things to get worse.

How Netanyahu’s indictment led to chaos

Before we can talk about what Israel tells us about Trump, it’s important to understand just how Netanyahu pushed Israel to the brink.

During his long stretch in office between 2009 and 2021, Netanyahu engaged in a series of ethically and legally questionable behaviors. The Israeli police began quietly investigating him in 2016 and eventually recommended charges in three investigations known as Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000.

Of these, Case 4000 is the most explosive. Israeli prosecutors allege that, while in office, Netanyahu struck a corrupt deal with the parent company of Walla, a major online news outlet. The prime minister allegedly approved a lucrative merger for the company in exchange for more favorable coverage in Walla — corruptly using the powers of his office to undermine the free press and strengthen his own political position.

Netanyahu responded to the charges by embracing a longstanding cause on the extreme right, one that he had previously shunned: waging all-out war on Israel’s independent judiciary.

Israel’s far right, made up of radical settlers and religious extremists, had long seen the court as one of the major impediments to their efforts to seize control of Palestinian land and increase Judaism’s role in Israeli public life. Its politicians and think tanks had developed a series of proposals — like a bill allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority vote — designed to bring the court’s allegedly liberal justices to heel.

In the past, Netanyahu had vocally opposed such ideas. Israel’s judiciary is “what enables the existence of all other democratic institutions,” he said in 2012, during a round of debates about court reform. “In the last few months, I buried every law that threatens the independence of the [judicial] system ... I will continue to do so.”

Then the indictments happened.

The onetime defender of Israel’s court system changed his tune, declaring (in one representative 2020 outburst) that the country was “no democracy” but rather “a government of bureaucrats and jurists.” He and his allies began floating legislative remedies for his prosecution, like the so-called “French law” immunizing incumbent prime ministers from prosecution.

Netanyahu purged his Likud party of the remaining critics of his behavior, turning it into a far-right vehicle for his all-encompassing quest to avoid jail time. Israeli politics polarized around whether or not Netanyahu was fit for office — with some right-wing parties even briefly joining a coalition with the anti-Netanyahu center and left on grounds that he was threatening democracy and the rule of law.

In 2022, after five narrow elections in three and a half years, Netanyahu finally emerged with a solid majority. This majority depended on an alliance with the most extreme of extreme factions, Israel’s Religious Zionist party: a militantly anti-Palestinian faction committed to waging war on the judiciary.

As a result, the new government’s first major legislative push was a comprehensive “court reform” package that would impose significant political controls on the judiciary. This includes not only the previously discussed “override clause,” but also provisions politicizing the process for appointing judges, weakening the independence of the attorney general’s office, and limiting court power to review actions taken by the executive.

If passed, this legislation would allow the far-right coalition to control the legal system and give Netanyahu tools he could use to end the case against him. Originally, the proposals were supposed to pass before the Knesset breaks for the Passover holiday in early April.

Netanyahu’s agenda is, understandably, widely unpopular. A late February poll from the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute found that large majorities oppose many of the package’s key planks (roughly two-thirds of Israelis oppose the override clause, for example). The opposition has been so intense, with many seeing the bills as an attack on the foundations of Israeli democracy, that it has galvanized what appears to be the largest protest movement in Israeli history: nearly three months of nonstop street demonstrations, joined by some of the country’s most influential and prominent figures, demanding that the government change course. His own defense minister, Yoav Gallant, warned on Sunday that Netanyahu was endangering the country — leading Netanyahu to fire him.

Protesters in a crowd carry signs reading, “Bibihazard,” Saving democracy,” and “Risk ahead.”
Protesters against Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul bills in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023.
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The firing of Gallant prompted the protests to intensify earlier this week, leading to the general strike and Netanyahu’s temporary climbdown. But the climbdown is only that — temporary. If he returns to the bill as planned, Israel could be right back where it started.

That would likely mean, at the very least, a return to street chaos and strikes. The bill’s actual passage could well trigger something worse: a constitutional crisis. If Israel’s Supreme Court strikes down the reforms and Netanyahu’s government denies the court’s legitimacy to do so, then Israel would be in a situation where different elements of the government disagree on what the law is and who gets to decide on it. In such a constitutional crisis, other institutions — like the police and military — may have to decide whom to obey.

It is about the most severe crisis that a democracy can face, and Israel is rapidly heading toward it.

“The country is on the brink of the abyss,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned in a speech earlier in the month. “A civil war is a red line — and I will not let that happen.”

The big lesson for America: Indictments raise the stakes

One key point of the Israeli story, from an American view, is that an indictment radically changes a politician’s incentives.

For most of his career, Netanyahu had a reputation as a calculating and cautious politician. True, he was relatively right wing, but he always seemed to have a sense of what was too far and the attendant danger of political chaos.

But since his indictment, he has changed: willing to embrace autocratic policies that he had previously rejected and to align himself with forces in Israeli politics that had long been consigned to the country’s margins.

Netanyahu’s shift speaks to the way the threat of a felony conviction changes one’s incentives. If you think you’re going to prison, you have nothing to lose by fighting with every tool available. When you’re the nation’s leading politician, with a Trump-like fervent following built up over decades, that means trying to turn the government into your personal get-out-of-jail-free card.

What exactly this looks like in Trump’s case is hard to predict. His ALLCAPS social media response to the indictment provides a clue, but only that: The potential avenues for extra-legal incitement on Trump’s part are legion.

The only thing we can be almost certain of is that he won’t drop out of the presidential race. Returning to the presidency would be his best chance at getting immunity from prosecution, thanks to the longstanding legal practice of not prosecuting incumbent presidents. And there are good reasons to believe an indictment could help him in the GOP primary rather than hurt him.

One important difference between Trump and Netanyahu is that the former has always been willing to court chaos.

There was never a “cautious” Trump bounded by legal norms and niceties. Historically, his pattern has always been greater escalation when pressed — as we saw during the Mueller investigation, the first impeachment, and the 2020 election. If someone as calculating as Netanyahu can be pushed into anti-system radicalism by an indictment, what could happen with someone like Trump who is already willing to go to extremes?

The threat of political instability — even a constitutional crisis like the one looming in Israel — should not be used as a rationale to protect powerful politicians who engage in criminal wrongdoing. An Israeli refusal to indict Netanyahu would have sent a dangerous signal about what prime ministers can get away with in Israel — a green light for future leaders to attempt to engage in undemocratic behavior while in office.

If Alvin Bragg (or other prosecutors in Georgia and the Justice Department) sincerely believes that Trump engaged in prosecutable offenses, as it appears at least Bragg does, letting Trump slide because of who he is would send a similarly dangerous message about the state of the rule of law in America.

Malfeasance at the highest levels, then, puts highly polarized democracies in a lose-lose situation. Either legal authorities prosecute and risk a system-shaking political crisis, or ignore the offense and risk setting a precedent that encourages more subtle and gradual democratic erosion.

Update, March 31, 9:30 am ET: This story was originally published on March 22 and has been updated to reflect news of Trump’s indictment on Thursday night.