I hasten to add the obvious, that comparing Israel with the United States takes imagination. Israel is four-fifths the size of Massachusetts, with a population something less than Greater Chicago’s — and that’s before we get to history, religion, resources and culture.
But Israeli and American politicians often seem caught up in the same game. Israel, like America, suffers tensions between people on the peripheries of cities and those on the urban coast, between the less well-educated, who are often religiously dogmatic, and those more cosmopolitan and scientifically inclined; between those leaning to the right and those to the left. A broad middle also exists, with people who may be religiously sentimental, or reasonably tolerant, or just can’t be bothered; over 40 percent of Israelis are secular, about 30 percent of Americans. Israel’s inequalities are generated by a globalized, technological and entrepreneurial economy. When Israelis say “elites,” they mean pretty much what Americans do.
Israel, like America, moreover, is a nation of immigrants whose patchy ethnic origins torture collective identity; and though Israelis and Americans assume a powerful (arguably unrivaled) military, national unity is most effectively mobilized by, well, the threat of catastrophe. Finally, Israel, like America, has a checkered constitutional history, where high ideals espoused in a Declaration of Independence were not exactly enacted; it’s a reality largely owing to bigotries against a large minority who, for good reason, did not suppose themselves welcomed into their country’s founding — bigotries that can be invigorated by demagogues.
Which brings us back to Trump and Netanyahu.
For both, regaining or holding on to power means, among other things, subordinating judicial institutions that define and enforce the rule of law. That’s because both have hanging over them grave allegations of high crimes against the state. They cannot risk responsible legal professionals grinding away at their jobs. Netanyahu’s assault on Israel’s judiciary is his preemptive strike. Trump knows something about debasing constitutional norms, but his own assault on prosecutors and courts may just be gearing up.
Trump, famously, is under investigation for his role in fomenting the bloody Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which sought to thwart the transfer of power. Less well-known is Netanyahu’s jeopardy. A year ago, before he returned to the premiership, Israel’s government — its “change coalition” — voted to empower an independent state commission to investigate Netanyahu’s role in the defense ministry’s 2016 procurement of submarines and other vessels from the German company, Thyssenkrupp — a deal in which he overrode the objections of his defense minister and the I.D.F.’s general staff. Close associates, and arguably, Netanyahu himself, profited; billions of defense ministry dollars were involved, not to mention millions in commissions and enhanced stock values. This was corruption with real national security implications. With Netanyahu back in power, that commission is, for the time being, dead.
But the parallel, alas, does not end there. For both Trump and Netanyahu are also charged with lesser corruptions that are comparatively difficult to prove, or at least easier for supporters to overlook: Trump’s alleged hush money to Stormy Daniels; Netanyahu’s payments — allegedly bribes — from foreign associates, and his alleged use of regulatory power to bend the news for his political benefit. In a way, moreover, both men have been lucky to be charged with these lesser crimes first. Netanyahu has already proven how an indictment of this kind can be useful in rallying the base, along with blocking potential challenges from feckless leaders of one’s own party.
His playbook is pretty much self-evident. You prompt condemnation of the less egregious charges as amounting to a witch hunt enabled by a “weaponized judiciary.” You discredit prosecutors and judges before they can convict you, and you justify your reelection, in part, by promising to tame them. The larger crime is thus submerged in “politics-as-usual” sparring — catnip for reporters and pundits who like the sport.
A “weaponized judiciary,” in other words, is your sly complaint when seeking power and your first priority when exercising power.
Netanyahu’s judicial “reform,” accordingly, is meant to make prosecutors and judges subservient to his cabinet. And, simultaneously, Netanyahu has made an alliance with ultra-Orthodox theocrats and pro-settlement zealots who feared that judicial enforcement of civil rights and the rule of law would undermine their privileges: a free hand in the West Bank, say, or control over marriage, or exemptions from the army for male yeshiva students. Netanyahu appointed the Kahanist bigot and provocateur Itamar Ben-Gvir to head the ministry overseeing the state police, which would be like Trump appointing Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, to run the FBI.
These moves may have no direct analogue in America. But Trump’s embrace of the anti-abortion movement is nothing if not submission to religious activists — including, ironically, reactionary Supreme Court justices, whom Netanyahu can only envy. And executive power carries other privileges. If Republicans win back the Senate next year, and Trump regains the White House, one can imagine whom he might install as attorney general. Jim Jordan is already chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Trump may be far from locking up the nomination, but he can take heart from Netanyahu’s brazenness. Trump’s enablers in the Republican Party (Fox News, and so forth) jumped to condemn his indictment as just another gambit by the liberal elite and “woke” Deep State. Trump is already promising presidential pardons for (and essentially singing along with) extremists who stormed the Capitol.
If there is good news from Israel, it came from the streets.
Israel’s preeminent physicians, scholars, entrepreneurs, bankers, generals, pilots, entertainers — the leaders, not of Greater Israel, but Global Israel — pushed back, especially in and around the coastal plain. From Tel-Aviv to Haifa, they led hundreds of thousands what can only be called a mass uprising of urbane men and women — people who revere their freedoms and were appalled by the prospect of living under a government with no checks and, worse, inflected by religious tribalism. As the historian Yuval Noah Harari put it in Haaretz on March 9: “Bring the coup to a halt, or we will bring the country to a halt.” Which is exactly what they did (though to what effect, we must wait and see).
Here there is an analogue. Assume Trump is reelected, or perhaps more plausibly, some younger, more acerbic Republican populist appealing to the Trumpist base loses the popular vote by a sound margin but squeaks into office owing to the way the Electoral College is stacked against Democrats. Assume the Senate goes Republican for the same reason — you get the idea. Now, assume this president moves against established liberties in predictable ways — using the pardon power the way Trump has, or having the F.B.I. hound “socialist” teachers, or even deploying martial law to enforce a false claim of election fraud. It can happen here. It almost did.
Israeli liberals have shown that, to protect a democratic commonwealth, one may act in ways that go beyond any particular election. It is a common wisdom that the American electoral map shows a distinct pattern in almost every state: blue counties in the cities, red counties in the rural exurbs and towns. What the map doesn’t show is how heavily the blue subsidizes the red. The top 25 metro areas make up half of U.S. GDP while the other roughly 350 smaller cities account for a little over 38 percent. Israelis have shown the power of bigger cities engaging in civil disobedience. The ferocity and stamina of the most educated citizens shouldn’t be underestimated.
Indeed, America’s democratic defenders may have an advantage that Israelis do not yet have. I noted earlier that Israel, like America, has a sizable minority that sees itself as just a latter-day beneficiary, if at all, of the country’s democratic norms. But African Americans nevertheless vote in large numbers in crucial elections and, rightly, see themselves as an indispensable constituent of democratic politics. The turnout rate for Black voters was 63 percent in 2020. Arab Israelis, in contrast, are discouraged by the ongoing occupation and other inequalities; if they voted at 63 percent in the fall of 2022, Netanyahu would not have won. This is not to underrate Trump’s menace, or Netanyahu’s. But there is reason for American democrats to trust, in a way Israelis still cannot, that victories at the ballot box can make victories in the streets unnecessary. In either case — in any case — democracies require vigilance.