What will Netanyahu's legacy be after the plea deal?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Imagine for a moment that Benjamin Netanyahu never became embroiled in the cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. Then what would his legacy be?

 PEDESTRIANS WALK past a banner protesting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv last year. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
PEDESTRIANS WALK past a banner protesting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv last year.
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

On February 7, 2018, one week before the police were to recommend indicting then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust, Netanyahu took to Facebook – his favorite medium for going directly to the people – to refute the charges.

Looking straight into the camera, Netanyahu said, “Many of you are asking what will be? So I want to calm you, there will be nothing, because I know the truth... the authorized legal sources will come to one conclusion, the simple truth, there is nothing.”

Soon this Netanyahu narrative was boiled down to a one-line mantra that he repeated numerous times during press availabilities and in campaign rallies: “There will be nothing, because there is nothing.”

Since news broke some two weeks ago that Netanyahu’s camp initiated contact with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s office about a possible plea deal, the country has been abuzz with speculation about whether or not a deal will be finalized.

Regardless, the very fact that at least some of Netanyahu’s lawyers are keen on negotiating such a deal gives the lie to Netanyahu’s earlier claim that there was never anything. For if there is nothing, why try to reach a deal?

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit sit alongside each other a cabinet meeting in 2014. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit sit alongside each other a cabinet meeting in 2014. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The basic parameters of the deal are that Netanyahu will plead guilty to fraud and breach of trust, but not bribery; his jail sentence will be commuted to community service; and his actions will carry the designation of “moral turpitude,” a designation that would bar the 72-year-old from politics for the next seven years.

The Netanyahu family, as well as his lawyers, are reportedly split on the issue.

Some, such as lawyers Boaz Ben Zur and Amit Hadad, reportedly believe that this is the best deal the former prime minister can get, though the “moral turpitude” designation and its concomitant political exile is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

Others, including Netanyahu’s sons, wife and personal lawyer Yossi Cohen, have registered opposition. According to a report on Channel 12, Cohen is opposed principally because an admission of guilt will stain Netanyahu’s legacy. He will be remembered less as a statesman and more as a swindler.

COHEN’S OBJECTION raises an interesting question: how would accepting a plea – thereby admitting that his past claims that “there will be nothing, because there is nothing” were untrue – color the way history looks at Netanyahu’s long run in the Prime Minister’s Office: 15 years over two stints, 12 years in his second continuous one.

Think Richard Nixon, the former US president who was forced to resign in 1974 as a result of the Watergate scandal, and what comes to mind is his famous speech in Orlando in November 1973.

“I made mistakes,” he said. “I have never obstructed justice,” he asserted. “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”

Except he turned out to have been a crook.

Think Bill Clinton, whose presidency was tainted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and what comes to mind is his statement in January 1998, 11 days after the story first broke: “I want to say one thing to the American people – I want you to listen to me, I am going to say this again – I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

Except he did have sex with that woman.

So, in future years, when people think of Netanyahu, will they think first, “There will be nothing, because there is nothing,” except that there was something?

Or, perhaps, will an admission of guilt and community service be swallowed up by Netanyahu’s other achievements?

When people think of Nixon today, they don’t see only Watergate.

They do see Watergate, but they also see the diplomatic opening he made with China, and the antiballistic missile treaty he negotiated with the Soviet Union, two moves that effectively put an end to the Cold War. They remember that he set up the US Environmental Protection Agency and ended the compulsory draft. His legacy is not only Watergate; it is Watergate and his other achievements.

For Netanyahu, will his legacy be his other achievements and then his plea bargain, or will it be first the plea bargain, and then his other achievements? If the Channel 12 report is accurate, Netanyahu’s family lawyer is concerned that the plea will trump everything else.

And with Netanyahu, there is an abundance of everything else.

Imagine for a moment that Netanyahu never became embroiled in the cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. Then what would his legacy be?

It would be a man who was Israel’s youngest prime minister, and also its longest-serving one. It would be the leader who placed the Iranian nuclear issue on the world’s agenda and who fought tooth and nail against it. It would be the leader who provided Israelis with an unprecedented sense of personal security.

It would be the leader who unleashed Israel’s economic and technological potential, de-linked its relations with the world from the Palestinian issue, and forged new relations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It would be the leader who was a master builder of political coalitions, who signed the Abraham Accords, and who brought to Israel the coronavirus vaccines. It would also be a man who kept Israel out of any major wars. It would be a man who was a peerless orator. It would be the leader who brought Israel to a whole different level.

He would also be remembered as the premier under whose watch the diplomatic process with the Palestinians went nowhere and who sanctified the status quo. He would be remembered as the prime minister under whose watch Israel’s relations flourished with the Republicans, but tanked with the Democrats, and during which significant segments of American Jewry started to distance themselves from Israel.

He would also be remembered as the man who played on the fears and deep divisions in Israeli society – religious-secular, Arab-Jew, Right-Left – just to retain power.

In short, a leader – like all great leaders – with soaring achievements, alongside some searing failures.

Now factor in the bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. Do they override everything else?

To judge the legacy of a leader, many different components need to be evaluated. These include the leader’s vision, domestic leadership, moral authority, crisis leadership, public persuasion, economic management, international relations, administrative skills, imagination, intelligence, integrity, willingness to compromise, willingness to take risks, the avoidance of major blunders.

In some of these categories Netanyahu did extraordinarily well, in others much less so.

He will be remembered as a tremendously gifted politician and statesman, but one done in by his flaws, foremost an obsession with image. Two of the three cases that brought about his political ruin – cases 2000 and 4000, the Yediot Aharonot and Walla cases – revolve around Netanyahu’s obsession with his image, how he is perceived. He might not have been the most popular prime minister in Israeli history, but he had a strong base, and his hold on power was secure. But for him that was not enough.

For Nixon, life did not end after he resigned. Rather, he spent the next 20 years rehabilitating his image, carving out a niche as a much sought-after elder statesman.

At Nixon’s funeral in 1994, Clinton, who was president at the time, said: “May the day of judging president Nixon on anything less than his entire life come to a close.” In other words, may the public judge Nixon not only by Watergate. To a large extent, Clinton’s wish has come to pass.

There is little reason to think that the fate of Netanyahu’s legacy would be significantly any different, especially since he is likely – if barred from politics – to remain active. If Nixon became an elder statesman, sought out by presidents and foreign leaders for his diplomatic expertise, Netanyahu could surely follow a similar path. Like Nixon, who wrote 11 books after leaving office, Netanyahu will surely try to rehabilitate his image. Unlike Nixon, he has a large base that still believes in him.

Michael Oren, in his book Ally, his 2015 account of his years as Israel’s envoy to Washington, wrote that “history has this humbling habit of diminishing the events we see as monumental and of reducing our roles in them to footnotes.”

Right now what seems so monumental in looking at Netanyahu is his current legal woes. Fifty years from now, however, that may look different. Nixon today is not looked at any way near the same way he was looked at when he left office in disgrace 47 years ago. Watergate is linked with Nixon in the public’s memory, but it is no longer the only thing linked to Nixon in the public memory.

Netanyahu’s lawyer, apparently, is less sanguine, and believes that if his client signs the plea deal, thereby admitting to crimes, let alone ones that carry the designation “moral turpitude,” this will forever tarnish his legacy. And Cohen knows that Netanyahu, the son of a historian who is exceptionally well-read in history himself, is concerned about his place in history. Therefore, according to the Channel 12 report, Cohen is advising against signing the deal.

If Netanyahu does not sign, and in the end is not vindicated by the court but is actually convicted and serves jail time, then that would surely ensure that his scandals would not just be just an asterisk or footnote in the Netanyahu story, but the lead paragraph.

That paragraph, however, would be written differently were he to accept a plea deal that may effectively end his political career but also keep him out of jail. •