Dispatch

The view from the ground.

How a Plea Bargain for Netanyahu Could Realign Israeli Politics

The terms offered would keep him out of prison but also out of office.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
A protester wears a mask resembling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A protester wears a mask resembling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A protester wears a mask resembling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a demonstration during Netanyahu's graft trial in Jerusalem on April 5. Amir Levy/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—A plea deal offer that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly mulling, which would keep him out of prison but also out of politics for the coming years, could trigger a political realignment in Israel if clinched and destabilize the current government, according to analysts.

Netanyahu’s attorneys officially began negotiating the terms in recent days with representatives of Israel’s attorney general, according to several Israeli media reports, in what appears to be the first serious plea deal talks since his corruption trial began almost two years ago.

Netanyahu, who lost the premiership last June after 12 consecutive years in power, is accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a series of complicated cases. He has denied all charges.

TEL AVIV, Israel—A plea deal offer that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly mulling, which would keep him out of prison but also out of politics for the coming years, could trigger a political realignment in Israel if clinched and destabilize the current government, according to analysts.

Netanyahu’s attorneys officially began negotiating the terms in recent days with representatives of Israel’s attorney general, according to several Israeli media reports, in what appears to be the first serious plea deal talks since his corruption trial began almost two years ago.

Netanyahu, who lost the premiership last June after 12 consecutive years in power, is accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a series of complicated cases. He has denied all charges.

News of the negotiations took many Israelis by surprise. Netanyahu had been vowing for years to fight the charges until the bitter end. But some legal experts have described the terms of the offer as exceedingly favorable to the former leader and difficult to pass up.

Analysts said the timing might have to do with the fact that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who made the decision to indict Netanyahu in 2019, ends his term at the end of this month and wants to see the cases resolved on his watch or, if negotiations drag on, shortly after his departure.

Netanyahu could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted on all counts in the three separate cases against him, which include charges of favor trading with media tycoons and receiving lavish gifts from wealthy benefactors. But under the terms of the deal, one case would be dropped entirely, while a bribery charge would be dismissed in another case. Netanyahu, who is 72, would be left facing more minor charges, including fraud and breach of trust.

The deal would likely limit his sentence to a fine and several months of community service, according to proposed terms of the deal. But it would state that Netanyahu’s wrongdoing amounted to “moral turpitude,” a determination that would ban him by law from holding public office for at least seven years.

Netanyahu heads the opposition Likud party, the largest individual faction in parliament. Once he’s out of politics, the path may be clear for a major shift in political alliances that could eventually topple the current coalition government, the analysts said.

“Many of the political players had a problem forming a coalition with Netanyahu—they refused to sit in government with a person under indictment,” Tal Schneider, a political correspondent for the Times of Israel, told Foreign Policy. “If he retires, it could change the entire political map.”

The ruling coalition, headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is the most heterogeneous in Israeli history, with eight factions spanning the ideological gamut from left to right, including an Islamist party. Their main common purpose in coming together last year was to unseat Netanyahu after four inconclusive elections.

Tensions have flared in recent weeks among the various factions over settler violence in the West Bank, land rights of Bedouin Arabs in the southern Negev desert, and other ideological issues.

Yet any gambit to vote down the current coalition and form a new one would likely have to wait until Likud picks a new leader, a process that could take four to six months. A separate move to dissolve parliament entirely and head to new elections is more remote for now, given the risk for current lawmakers of losing their jobs.

Bennett, for his part, dismissed the idea that his coalition was in peril. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel,” he said during Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

A senior government official who did not want to be identified speaking about internal coalition matters told Foreign Policy that “there was no immediate threat to the coalition” due to Netanyahu’s looming retirement.

“The narrative that Netanyahu was the glue keeping this coalition together isn’t right,” the official added. “The glue is political interest. Who has an interest right now in pulling the coalition apart?”

Netanyahu has consistently described the corruption charges against him as a “witch hunt” and a “deep state conspiracy,” promising supporters that the cases would eventually fall apart. But Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said Netanyahu likely realizes that the deal now on offer is too good to turn down

“[Netanyahu’s] attorneys are telling him that he wouldn’t be able to get a better deal, he should do it right now with Mandelblit leaving his post,” Rahat speculated. Other legal and political analysts criticized the offer as a sweetheart deal.

Opinion polls, meanwhile, suggested about half of Israelis opposed a plea bargain—including both critics and supporters of Netanyahu. The critics want to see justice served, while the supporters want nothing short of a full exoneration, Rahat said.

One surprise proponent of the deal is Aharon Barak, a former Supreme Court chief justice whose civil rights push from the bench in the 1990s made him a hero on the Israeli left and a frequent target of criticism on the right.

In several media interviews recently, Barak said an end to the Netanyahu saga was critical to “national healing.”

In one of those interviews on Kan Radio on Sunday, Barak described Netanyahu as “an important defender of the judicial system” early in his career, who reversed his position once he was indicted. “Instead of a defender of the system, he turned to shattering the system.”

Yet it was precisely for this reason, Barak added, that a plea arrangement where Netanyahu admits his guilt and takes responsibility would be so dramatic.

“It would remove the sting from the destruction of the judicial system,” he said.

But Schneider, the political correspondent for the Times of Israel, said Netanyahu supporters were unlikely to view it that way.

For many of them, the deal would validate “what Netanyahu has been saying all along: that the only thing [the legal authorities] care about is removing him from power,” she told Foreign Policy.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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