In the end, indictment appeared inevitable, as investigators dug up more and more accusations against the man leading their country.
In response, he blamed his opponents for an “unprecedented witch hunt.” The investigation, he said, was “tainted from the start.”
With weeks left until elections, the man holding his country’s most powerful office had officially become a suspect in a criminal investigation.
What may read to some as a not-too-far-fetched scenario for a Trump impeachment ahead of the 2020 elections felt much less like fiction to Israelis this week. With about six weeks to go until early elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s future in politics was cast into doubt on Thursday after the country’s attorney general recommended his indictment on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, despite the prime minister’s vehement denials.
Perhaps more interesting than the path to indictment is what may happen next. In some ways, the Israeli prime minister’s indictment could become a case study for the complexities of impeachment in the United States, too, and for the risks involved in any possible future effort to remove the president from office. Those questions have gained new relevance after Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified before a House committee on Wednesday — testimony that could implicate the president in several crimes.
Netanyahu is expected to be formally charged only after a hearing that is likely to take place after Israel’s April 9 legislative elections. Rules for the indictment of sitting presidents or prime ministers differ among countries. While it’s the attorney general who decides to recommend an indictment in Israel, in the United States, a removal from power through impeachment starts in the House of Representatives, which launches the proceedings. If the House votes to impeach the president, the Senate then has to decide whether the accusations are merited. It takes a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict the president of the charges, resulting in removal from office.
Measures such as dividing power between the two chambers of Congress are supposed to ensure the integrity of the process. In case of a conviction, indicted Israeli prime ministers theoretically do not have to resign until the end of their appeals, which can take years to complete. Similarly, impeached U.S. presidents remain in power unless the Senate has voted against them.
But in reality, impeachments or indictments are still deeply political in both cases.
To parties, the option of removing a leader who may have violated the law tends to prompt serious questions that go beyond what’s right in a legal sense. Opposition parties may seek to mobilize their voters by focusing on accusations against an incumbent. But that strategy could easily backfire. It could prompt voters who question the validity of those claims to rally around the accused instead.
For a suspect’s allies, abandoning a possibly criminal leader who still enjoys significant popular support could cost crucial votes, as well.
So far, Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition appears to back him, arguing that he is innocent until proven guilty. But that is a risky gamble: If more evidence against Netanyahu comes to light, his current supporters may eventually turn against the parties that kept him in power. Similarly, Trump’s travails with the Democrats could strengthen his support — unless new evidence surfaces.
In various other countries, the dilemma of whether to back impeachment and indictment is even more deeply ingrained in the parliamentary process. Romania, for instance, relies on a two-step system in which lawmakers vote first, followed by a nationwide referendum. Giving the electorate a direct say in impeachment has resulted in some strange twists, however, including a president deemed a criminal by Parliament, but reinstalled by voters.
President Traian Basescu was temporarily removed from power twice but politically survived both times. When Parliament decided for the first time in 2007 that various abuse-of-power accusations against him were weighing too heavily, it suspended the president. But the public later overturned that decision and allowed him to resume his duties.
By 2012, both Parliament and the public appeared to agree that something was afoul in Basescu’s administration — but this time, not enough voters participated in the impeachment referendum, which inadvertently kept the president in power once again.
A 2014 overhaul of the French presidential impeachment process may eventually pose similar challenges that could result in a split between a serving president and his party. While the 2014 reforms lowered the threshold of members of Parliament needed to impeach a leader for a now far broader range of crimes, serving French presidents maintain their immunity as long as they hold office. Effectively, this means that authorities cannot investigate French presidents in the first place — which in turn makes it harder for Parliament to impeach them.
In Netanyahu’s case, investigators are at least one step further. In Trump’s case, that remains to be determined.
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