“He is a racist, he is a con man, and he is a cheat.”
“You have damaged the reputation of public service and the public’s faith in it…You operated under conflict of interests, you abused your authority… and you corrupted public servants working under you.”
If a Martian landed on Earth and tuned into the news this week, it would be hard to tell apart the characterizations of the leadership of President Trump by his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, in his astounding testimony before Congress, from the decision announced this week by Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit of his intention to indict the prime minister of Israel for bribery, fraud, and breach of the public trust.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has vowed not to resign his position, and instead he has launched an all-out assault on the investigation, tearing a page from Trump’s populist playbook.
In the wake of the attorney general’s announcement, the prime minister took to television to denounce the investigation as a “witch hunt” to impugn the integrity of the attorney general and the investigation, and to claim he was the victim of “political persecution” of a conspiracy of the media and “the left.” At the Likud Party’s official campaign launch this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an hour-long speech, in which he delivered a classic populist appeal:
“Right wing voters, for four years you have sat at home and heard, evening after evening, the propaganda broadcasts against us on television. Channels 11, 12, 13, are all the same thing—brainwashing. How slanted they are. How distorted. I walk down the street and people tell me how slanted and distorted the media is. I want to tell those people—once every four years you have the opportunity to give a crushing answer to the commentators, the correspondents, the left wing propagandists. You can tell them a simple thing. We will decide, not you. The people are the sovereign, the people will decide.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
That’s because it is. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Bibi and Trump are reading from the same script.
From the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference this past Saturday, in his rambling two-hour harangue against his political foes, President Trump characterized Congressional oversight as “bullshit” and the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and a “phony deal.”
Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump have positioned themselves in open opposition to the institutions of legal accountability that keep in check executive power—and which make each democracy a government of laws and not of men.
What is clear in 2019 is that wherever democracy comes under threat, it is only as strong as the institutions that can keep it safe from those who seek to consolidate power for their own gain. The judiciary. The media. The police. And a strong civil society. These are the institutions which ensure that no citizen – even the president or prime minister – is above the law. And it is up to us, as citizens, stand by them.
This moment makes it clear what is at stake — whether Israel’s justice system can hold a prime minister accountable. This is the test for Israel’s democracy — and beyond. It is a measure of whether the system of rule of law can withstand the populist assault.
Especially now, you and I cannot lose focus of the bigger picture. Because the future of Israeli democracy will not rise and fall with the indictment of Netanyahu. The powerful forces which carry authoritarian populists to power are deeper and longer-lasting than any single leader or political moment.
And while these challenges to Israel’s democratic institutions matter, the best way to defeat authoritarian populism is to build a culture of democracy – one woven by the strands of a strong and resilient civil society. This is the true challenge of our times. This is the challenge to which the New Israel Fund is committed.