New normal: impeachments in US, criminal investigations in Israel

In Congress's Wednesday night vote to impeach US President Donald Trump – along strict party lines – he is the third president since 1974 to face this process.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The impeachment process is one that the fathers of America’s democracy imbued with a tremendous degree of gravitas.
So much so that from 1776 to 1974 – the first 198 years of American history – only one president, Reconstruction-era president Andrew Johnson, was impeached, meaning that articles of impeachment were drawn up and passed in the House of Representatives. Johnson was acquitted in the later trial in the Senate when the vote there fell just one short of conviction.
One president was impeached, but not ousted from office, out of the country’s first 36.
And then Watergate hit, and Congress began formal impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon in February of 1974.  Nixon resigned that August when it became clear to him and his allies that not only would Congress vote to impeach him, but the Senate would then muster the two-thirds majority to convict and remove him from office.
With Congress having voted Wednesday night – along strict party lines – to impeach US President Donald Trump, he will be the third president since 1974 to face this process. Bill Clinton joined Nixon and Trump when he was impeached by the House in 1998, but he was acquitted by the Senate.
In other words, the impeachment process was used against three of the last eight US presidents. One impeachment process for the country’s first 36 presidents, three for the last eight. One impeachment process in America’s first 198 years, three in the last 45.
Impeachment, it seems, is the new normal, a reflection of the fierce partisanship bedeviling Washington.
And that’s in America. But, as is well known, trends and fads that begin in America tend to make their way over here as well – just a  bit delayed.
In Israel’s 72 years, it has had 13 different prime ministers.  Until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power in 1996, criminal investigations were only opened against Yitzhak Rabin’s wife in 1977 for keeping an illegal bank account in the US. Rabin resigned as a result.
Since Netanyahu’s first term in office in 1996, however, criminal investigations of sitting prime ministers have become routine, and every prime minister since then – Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Netanyahu – has had to deal with them.
These investigations led to Olmert’s resignation, eventual conviction and jail time for fraud and bribery, and the investigations
into multiple affairs involving Netanyahu have led to the attorney-general’s decision to indict him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
And just as Trump’s impeachment by a very partisan Congress may very well lead to a future Democratic president’s impeachment by a Republican-controlled Congress, so too should any future prime ministers here realize that political opponents will look to use investigations as a legitimate tool to unseat them.
Besides similarities between Trump’s plight in the US House and Netanyahu’s legal woes here, the process that unfolded in Washington on Wednesday had nothing directly to do with Israel. The only way the impeachment process will impact Israel is the degree to which it will impact Trump’s chances of reelection – since whether or not he is reelected, and who might replace him, will obviously impact Jerusalem.
Although Trump is the fourth US president to have gone through an impeachment process, he is the first to face reelection afterward – and it is unclear yet what impact this will have on the electorate.
Some say it will obviously hurt him, because who wants a president who has been impeached? Others argue the opposite: that it will energize his base, which views the whole process as a witch hunt.
And if that sounds familiar to Israelis, it should.  Trump will be watching Israel’s March 2 elections with great interest for a number of reasons, not the least to see how an indictment – which is what impeachment essentially is and which Netanyahu will be dealing with when he goes to the ballot box – plays with the electorate.