Netanyahu’s indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust poses similar political challenges to Israel as Trump’s impeachment does here. Just as here, Netanyahu’s voter base largely continues to back him, with many viewing the indictment as simply an attempt from elites to beat Netanyahu on their turf when they haven’t been able to beat him at the ballot box. It is unclear whether he will resign or step aside temporarily as prime minister while he fights the charges. With Israel politically deadlocked and unable to form a new government after two elections already this year, it’s possible he might even lead his Likud party’s ticket in an unprecedented third election within a year if a government is not formed.
These challenges are problematic for Israel’s government. But in our non-parliamentary system, they would be a constitutional crisis.
The difference is that in Israel, the prime minister is responsible to and elected by his party and colleagues of other parties in the parliament. A majority can devise whatever framework it wants to keep government going. Unlike in our system, it could allow Netanyahu to temporarily step aside and reinstate him if cleared. Indeed, that’s what a recent poll showed a large number of Israelis — mostly soft supporters of his coalition — want to see. People elected by, and responsible to, the voters have the ultimate say over who runs the country.
There is also democratic accountability built into the entire parliamentary system. Most cabinet officials are also elected members of parliament who are accountable to voters. They have great leeway over their departments and do not have to completely bend to the prime minister’s will. In our system, the elected president appoints people who are constitutionally barred from being elected officeholders. Without an elected president to govern their behavior, there is no democratic accountability for day-to-day governance built into the executive branch.
This means an indictment of a sitting president has grave implications for democratic rule. An unelected prosecutor would, by levying an indictment, instigate one of two logical outcomes: First, the president could stay in charge but likely would be consumed by his or her own defense. That de facto would remove democratic control from voters and hand real power to unelected officials without genuine oversight. Second, the president could resign, which in effect would overturn an election without the charges even being considered by a court and a jury. That, too, would be democratically problematic even though the president would be succeeded by a democratically elected vice president. As we all know, since the vice president is chosen by and runs on the same ticket as the president, that person does not have the same degree of democratic legitimacy or following as does the person who did receive popular approbation.
The system we have, however, does provide for both democratic accountability and an effective check on executive malfeasance. Elections are the ultimate democratic check on power, and a president who is running for reelection can be tossed out by all of us. Impeachment and removal are also ultimately a democratic check on presidential abuses, as every person who makes the decision to remove the president is accountable to his or her voters. Either process is messy and time-consuming, but each is ultimately conducted in open proceedings with the evidence for removal presented for the public to consider.
Imagine what would happen if a Democratic prosecutor, presenting a case before a judge appointed by Democrats, obtained a conviction against Trump in a jury in the District of Columbia, which gave him only 4.1 percent of the vote. If we permitted presidential indictment, that process would satisfy all legal norms and remove him from office — and would almost certainly destroy any faith his supporters have in our democracy.
Any serious charge of criminal behavior by a political leader creates severe political problems for a country, as Netanyahu’s indictment shows. But what is problematic for Israel could pose an existential threat to our Constitution. As wrenching as impeachment is, we should be glad elected representatives and not unelected lawyers are deciding whether Trump stays or goes.