Netanyahu greenlights plea deal negotiations

If Benjamin Netanyahu agrees to a plea deal in his public corruption case, he will have to leave politics.

 Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu at his party faction meeting, December 13, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu at his party faction meeting, December 13, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday night greenlighted his lawyers' pursuit of a possible plea deal regarding his public corruption case even though Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has said such a deal would mean the end of the former prime minister’s career.

In response, Mandelblit, State Attorney Amit Aisman, prosecution team chief (for the Netanyahu cases) Liat Ben Ari and, for the first time, Case 4000 lead prosecutor Yehudit Tirosh are holding a meeting to decide whether to enter formal plea-bargain negotiations.

Until now, Tirosh and the other rank-and-file prosecutors from the Netanyahu case had not been included in behind-the-scenes informal messages about whether to enter formal talks.

The deep division between informal discussions and formal talks has had enormous significance because of the implications to the country of Netanyahu even agreeing to endorse a narrative in which he is considering confessing to a crime.

For Mandelblit, bringing in Tirosh and the rest of the prosecution team will open him to a strong push either against a plea deal or only a deal with stricter conditions. That potentially includes Netanyahu issuing statements recanting all of his attacks on the legal establishment and the prosecutors themselves.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on November 22, 2021 (credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court on November 22, 2021 (credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)

Despite all of the above developments, sources from both the defense and the prosecution side both indicated that a deal was far from certain.

A spokesman for Netanyahu at 8:11 p.m. Monday evening said he was ready for talks but had not agreed to a finding of moral turpitude that would end his career. This paradoxical message was put out though Mandelblit and has made it clear he will not even enter formal talks unless Netanyahu accepts that the prosecution would ask the court to ban Netanyahu from politics for seven years under the law.

Sources from the prosecution side continued to deny that formal talks had begun.

At 8:33 p.m., a spokesman for Netanyahu issued a second and highly unusual message that said: “After the many false reports, I want to declare: Only statements from Netanyahu’s lawyers and his official spokesman are credible messages. Any other report is incorrect.”

Also on Monday, the trial itself continued as if there were no talks.

Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Tzur spent much of the day cross-examining Yaniv Peleg, the second police interrogator to be questioned during the trial.

Peleg has a controversial position in the case since he helped interrogate former Netanyahu aide turned state’s witness Nir Hefetz. He has been accused of coercing Hefetz into flipping against Netanyahu.

In contrast, Peleg said he treated Hefetz well and that accusations by Hefetz against him were based on his misunderstanding the interrogation process or statements by Peleg that could be misconstrued.

As of Sunday night, the potential plea deal between Mandelblit and Netanyahu was still very much on the fence, with pressure from the prosecution that stalling from the former prime minister could run out the play clock.

The prosecution side emphasized that Netanyahu cannot hope to suddenly agree to a deal on February 1 and wrap up the entire negotiating process in 24 hours, like he might try to do in coalition political negotiations.

Rather, the prosecution said Netanyahu still had not agreed to their conditions to enter a formal negotiating process, a process which could take several days or more, even though Mandelblit is only in office until February 1.

All indications are that Netanyahu’s legal team wants him to take the deal, with mixed views from his family members.

When Sara Netanyahu accepted a plea bargain in the so-called “prepared foods affair,” it was only after several months of negotiations and repeated pleas from her lawyers.

Two coalition MKs, Michal Shir (New Hope) and Limor Magen Telem (Yisrael Beytenu) presented bills on Sunday that would double the period of time in which a candidate convicted of a serious crime could not be prime minister.

The legal concept of moral turpitude currently applies for seven years. The bill would double that to 14.

The plea deal has been both boosted and attacked by top figures in the legal community, with former chief justice Aharon Barak backing it but former state attorney Moshe Lador slamming it.

Speaking to Israel Radio on Sunday, Barak came out of the shadows and publicly supported the plea-bargain deal days after his name was being tossed around by the media as supporting the deal behind the scenes.

He said he supported the deal not only because of the legal issues, “but because for many years, he [Netanyahu] defended the courts. I respected him a lot then. After I retired, he would call me sometimes about international law questions.

“But once the indictment was filed, there was a drastic change – a revolution. Instead of defending [the legal establishment], he tried to smash it,” Barak said.

“It is good to approve the plea deal,” he said. “It removes the stinger stuck in the legal establishment as well as the claim that came from Netanyahu in which he said the case was manufactured. In contrast, Netanyahu would now be saying, ‘I admit I am responsible.’ This is so important and dramatic; among the factors to consider, it is the most important.”

However, Lador said Netanyahu had caused the country to split into multiple camps and that the only way to end the division he spawned would be a conviction with jail time.

He also said the cases were a home run, and there was no reason to grant Netanyahu any leniency out of concern he could get an acquittal.

Lador criticized Barak for intervening in an actual, ongoing case.

Besides the possible deal with Netanyahu, there have been reports that Yediot Aharonot owner Arnon “Nuni” Mozes might also cut a deal to help close Case 2000, the Yediot Aharonot-Israel Hayom affair.

In the meantime, Netanyahu’s case might not end the trial on Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla affair, since there have been no negotiations with Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch.

Whereas ousting Netanyahu from politics would carry a special value for the prosecution, there is no corresponding card for Elovitch to play, and the prosecution might still seek jail time.

Meanwhile, Elovitch’s team has signaled they are ready to fight on to the end, even if Netanyahu cuts a deal, and that any deal which drops bribery as a charge for the former prime minister could benefit their position.