The Slatest

As Investigators Close In, Netanyahu and Trump Are Following the Same Playbook

A picture taken on February 3, 2019 in Tel Aviv shows a giant election billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands.
A picture taken on Feb. 3 in Tel Aviv shows a giant election billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands. Jack Guez/Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently put up a billboard at an entrance to Tel Aviv showing the Israeli prime minister shaking hands with President Donald Trump over the caption “Netanyahu. In another league.” It’s not surprising that Netanyahu wants to tout his close relationship with the American president: Trump is popular in Israel, particularly among potential Netanyahu voters, for decisions such as withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. But after the news last week that Israel’s attorney general plans to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges, just six weeks ahead of closely contested national elections, the juxtaposition of the two men could also have uncomfortable connotations. The legal and political predicaments both leaders are facing have plenty of parallels.

Like the Trumps, Netanyahu and his family have been the subject of what feels like an interminable investigation, with developments and information coming in drips and drabs while opponents hope against hope that the justice system will finally remove him from office. As in the U.S., the motivations of the attorney general, a former Netanyahu ally, have been called into question. In both cases, the squalid tabloid details are irresistible: In place of the overpriced portrait and porn star hush-money payments that featured into Michael Cohen’s testimony, Netanyahu’s case features alleged bribes in the form of pink champagne, cigars, and Mariah Carey tickets. Both men even share a high-profile defender in the form of celebrity law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Most importantly, both men have attempted to use the investigations to their own advantage by painting them as political witch hunts. “The left understands that they will not beat me at the ballot box,” Netanyahu said last week after the attorney general’s announcement. “They exerted extraordinary pressure on the attorney general to issue an indictment even though there is nothing, in order to influence the elections and to crown a left-wing government.” This echoes Trump’s charge over the weekend that “Robert Mueller put 13 of the angriest Democrats in the history of our country on the commission” in order to avenge Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat.

With Knesset elections scheduled for April 9, Israelis will learn before Americans how well this strategy works out. Israel’s center-left opposition uncharacteristically appears to have its act together heading into this election. An alliance led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and former finance minister Yair Lapid is leading Netanyahu’s Likud party in recent polls. Netanyahu cannot actually be indicted until a court hearing , which won’t be held until months after the election. Even then, he wouldn’t have to step down unless he’s convicted, which could take years. But the charges are quickly becoming the dominant issue of an election that will be mostly a referendum on Netanyahu. As with Trump, his base is likely to stick with him: 42 percent of Israelis believe the charges against him are politically motivated.

Echoing Trump’s recent attacks on “socialism” and the Green New Deal, Netanyahu has painted Gantz as a “leftist” whose government would undermine Israel’s security. Netanyahu has also been pandering to far-right nationalism, forging an alliance last week with an extremist, racist Otzma Yehudit party. The Times of Israel reports that he favored a slogan describing the election as “a choice between ‘Bibi or [Arab MK Ahmad] Tibi,’ who he claims is in cahoots with” Gantz. Trump is not exactly above these sorts of tactics.

As with the investigation into Trump, the charges hanging over Netanyahu could either lead to his removal from office, or—if he beats the odds as he has time and again in his long career and wins re-election—leave the country’s politics even more fractured, destabilized, and open to extremists. Americans should be paying close attention this April.