Some seven months after he left the prime minister’s office, Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for corruption has reached a climax this week, with speculation that he is considering the terms of a plea deal to avoid jail time.
- Netanyahu, who has been leader of the opposition since July, has reportedly agreed to attorney general Avichai Mandelblit’s demand that a plea deal in his criminal trial include a clause banning him from public office for seven years.
- “Netanyahu decided to go for a deal and accept the attorney general’s bottom line”, a source close to Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 12 news.
- The plea deal also reportedly requires that Netanyahu accept “moral turpitude”, according to Channel 13 news. Accepting moral turpitude would legally bar Netanyahu from public service for seven years.
- The reports came after Mandelblit, senior prosecutors and Netanyahu’s legal team met for hours on Tuesday afternoon and evening to discuss the potential plea bargain.
- A Netanyahu spokesman insisted that the former prime minister “has not announced he agrees to moral turpitude”, with pundits noting the use of “announced”, rather than a full denial.
- Netanyahu himself played down the speculation, telling MKs in his Likud party: “There’s nothing to update you on. If there’s something to update, I’ll update”.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is on trial for alleged fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases dating from his time as prime minister between 2009 and 2021, including bribery in one case. In one case, Netanyahu is alleged to have worked to benefit the business interests of the former controlling shareholder of the Bezeq media company, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site. In a second, Netanyahu allegedly negotiated an unimplemented quid pro quo deal with newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen Netanyahu weaken media competitors in return for more favourable coverage. In the third, Netanyahu is alleged to have illicitly received benefits and expensive gifts from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. The former prime minister has denied all the allegations since he was first indicted in 2019.
Despite the absence of any firm confirmation regarding the bargain plea reports, reactions from Israeli society have been immediate.
- Former state attorney Eran Shendar reacted critically, calling a possible deal “really unworthy and unreasonable”.
- “From Netanyahu’s perspective”, Shendar continued, “there’s a great interest. In terms of public benefit, it’s shameful”.
- Shendar’s comments came in a radio interview, in which he warned that a bargain plea would mean that “every top politician will know that if he’s charged with a crime, the more he harms the law enforcement system or the media, the better it will turn out for him. That’s a terrible message”.
- Shendar’s scepticism reflected wider public opinion, as polling found that most Israelis oppose a plea deal for Netanyahu.
- In polling published on Sunday, opposition to a deal appeared to be shared by all Israelis, regardless of their political affiliation. Between three polls, 46–51 percent of Israelis expressed opposition to a deal, compared with 28–30 percent supporting a deal.
- Right-wing and left-wing Israelis appeared to share opposition to the deal, albeit for different reasons: those on the right believe Netanyahu is innocent, while those on the left wish to see Netanyahu jailed.
- Meanwhile, a campaign to cover the legal costs of Netanyahu’s trial reportedly raised NIS 2 million (£473,000) from more than 12,000 donors within hours of launching on Sunday.
Runners and riders
Netanyahu’s Likud party, which he has dominated for some two decades, is had mixed reactions to reports of a plea deal.
- It is thought that some MKs are mulling the prospect of succeeding Netanyahu, despite their outward protestations of loyalty and support.
- Loyalists like Miri Regev MK said on Sunday that “the whole case was a despicable effort to get rid of a right-wing prime minister”, expressing support for Netanyahu to keep fighting the legal process: “In the end, it wont be Benjamin Netanyahu standing trial, but rather those who fabricated these cases”.
- By contrast, Galit Distel Atbaryan MK expressed an openness to the plea bargain, saying: “If [Netanyahu] now wants to rest, let him turn to whoever he wants” as a successor.
- Some Likud MKs are thought to be preparing for a rare leadership contest, the first since Netanyahu took over in 2005.
- Amir Ohana MK – seen as one of Regev’s main rivals to succeed Netanyahu – openly speculated on Saturday that “it is not impossible that I will run for Likud chairman after Netanyahu resigns”.
- Other potential candidates include former health minister Yuli Edelstein, who has publicly said he will run for the party leadership, as well as former finance minister Israel Katz and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat.
Meanwhile, in government
While Netanyahu’s supporters consider life after him, Israel’s governing coalition – formed in July specifically to oust Netanyahu – has watched the trial’s development closely. On Sunday, prime minister Naftali Bennett dismissed speculation that his government could fall if Netanyahu signed a plea deal, stating that “The government of Israel is working and continuing to work quietly and effectively day after day for the citizens of Israel”. This speculation stems from past statements by three of the coalition parties – Bennett’s Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu – that they would not support a Likud-led government led by Netanyahu. Should a plea deal be agreed and Netanyahu leave the political stage, then a right-wing government of Likud, Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu could be formed. Foreign minister and alternate prime minister Yair Lapid echoed Bennett’s comments, making clear his view that “the government is not dependent on Netanyahu. It’s based on shared work, it’s based on our creation of a government that connected all of Israeli society”. Left-wing Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz likewise claimed that “a plea deal does not say anything about the government”, which he insisted was “better than all the imaginary options people have”, as did Labor leader Merav Michaeli, who made clear that “this government will continue to do the good and important work it does for the citizens of Israel, regardless of these developments”.
What happens next
Latest reports regarding the progress of bargain plea negotiations appear to have stalled, with Mandelblit reportedly having cooled to the possibility of a plea deal due to his term ending in two weeks and as a result of intense public backlash to the possibility of a deal. Stuck in opposition and in legal trouble, it is difficult to see how the next seven months will be much better for Benjamin Netanyahu than the last.