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Netanyahu’s defense is a preview of Trump’s

On Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to stand trial for alleged crimes committed in office. The charges read to him at the Jerusalem District Courthouse were for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

The indictments originated in cases involving gifts from wealthy friends in exchange for favors and two harebrained schemes to elicit positive news coverage in exchange for official government acts. Evidence includes recordings and reams of state witness testimony from former Netanyahu confidants.

This was the story you would have seen reading a mainstream Israeli newspaper, watching any of the major television channels, or reading accounts in the foreign press. It is a straightforward criminal case involving a politician allegedly abusing his power. Whether or not the facts meet the evidentiary threshold for a conviction is another matter, but there is no question why this type of behavior, which emanates a moral stench, caught the attention of the Israeli police. No question that is unless you have been in the Israeli right’s media and political bubble.

There, the Netanyahu case is hardly a straightforward one. In fact, it is the climax of a “leftist” conspiracy over 40 years in the making. On the steps of the courthouse, Netanyahu himself articulated the gist of it: “The objective is to depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years.”

That this story is patently ridiculous has not stopped its spread, as we might say in these times. Netanyahu is successfully whipping up populist resentment against the judiciary among a sizable percentage of the population.

As with the most alluring of conspiracy theories, the story Netanyahu and his supporters tell contains kernels of truth that rope in enough otherwise reasonable people who are inclined to believe their leader has done nothing wrong and is, in fact, the victim. There is indeed a nominally leftist “old elite,” made up of Ashkenazi Jews, that was ousted from office by Menachem Begin, powered by the support of downtrodden Mizrahim, in 1977. It is also true that since then, this old elite has found a more hospitable environment in the professional establishments, including the legal one, where they promoted (only sometimes successfully) liberal values and norms as a check on the Knesset and the government.

It’s worth mentioning that when the right was out of power, it also sought to find refuge in liberalism against “the tyranny of the majority.” Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Revisionist Zionism who is often remembered as a militant agitator, was a committed political pluralist, as was Begin. It makes sense that some political minorities develop a unique appreciation for constitutional restraint on the elected branches of government.

But this is where the factual elements of Netanyahu’s narrative end and the groundless victimhood orgy begins. While “old elites” may still have a healthy presence in the legal establishment, they do not control it. In fact, their influence has eroded significantly over the last ten years, so much so that the police commissioner and attorney general involved in Netanyahu’s cases were Netanyahu appointees from right-wing backgrounds. The High Court, which is loathed by Netanyahu’s supporters as a usurper of popular will, is no longer as reliably liberal as it used to be.

Netanyahu’s spurious persecution narrative is not meant to persuade the judges on the facts of the case. It is meant to turn the indictments against the prime minister into a polarizing issue that will invariably put judges in a difficult position of judging someone who is willing to rally almost half the country to his defense.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Americans should see this as a preview of what is to come if a future administration attempts to hold Donald Trump criminally accountable for illegal acts committed while in the White House. It’s not a stretch to find similarities between Netanyahu’s behavior in responding to his legal travails and Trump’s: Both say they are victims of an elaborate conspiracy that goes deep into the heart of their country’s law enforcement systems. Their most impassioned supporters believe them and cheer on their fevered tirades against the “deep state.”

The main difference, for now, is that Trump is protected by a DOJ policy not to prosecute presidents while in office: Former special counsel Robert Mueller strongly intimated that this was the only thing stopping him from recommending charges of obstruction of justice against Trump. Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, has also demonstrated honesty and strength of character that is totally alien to the unctuous William Barr.

After Trump leaves office, whether that is in 2021, 2025 or sometime between, this issue of crimes he may have committed during his presidency will surely resurface. As with Netanyahu, a political question will dominate each and every legal move: Is our justice system strong enough to handle a populist wrecking ball?

Abe Silberstein is a freelance commentator on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. His work has previously been published in the New York Times, Haaretz, +972 Magazine and the Forward.

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