Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected a plea deal that would ban him from politics for the next seven years, following a message from Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit that he was no longer prepared to conclude a deal and that Netanyahu could try with his successor.
The moral turpitude clause that the prosecution insisted on in his public corruption cases would have prevented Netanyahu from running for public office for seven years (following what was expected to be a sentence of community service).
Although his lawyers had been urging him to accept a deal in which he would avoid jail time, Netanyahu, in his first public comments on the issue, rejected media reports that he had agreed to the clause that would ban him from public office.
“In recent days there have been false reports as if I accepted the moral turpitude clause,” Netanyahu said in the video. “This is simply not true.”
An outpouring of public support had moved him, he said, adding that he would continue to lead the Likud and the right-wing camp.
Although the former prime minister could always change his mind, the public video announcement that he will continue leading the Likud and would not accept the moral turpitude clause seemed to end the possibility of a deal before Mandelblit steps down on February 1.
Legal sources have said Mandelblit would not agree to a deal without the moral turpitude clause.
The country has been rife with daily reports for nearly two weeks since news of secret informal talks between the sides made headlines.
However, based on Netanyahu’s video statement, it seems he was only on board with an Arye Deri-style deal, in which he would resign temporarily from the Knesset but would retain all of his power in the Likud (Deri resigned from the Knesset on Sunday but still controls Shas) and would be able to run for the next Knesset.
Alternatively, Netanyahu might be ready to exit political life in later negotiations, but he simply ran out of time to negotiate with Mandelblit, and any potential opportunity will likely only present itself with a new attorney-general, who would take office in March at the earliest.
It seems that Netanyahu believed a deal could be had with Mandelblit in a matter of days and certainly in the last few weeks of January.
In contrast, Mandelblit saw in recent weeks that most of the prosecution opposed any deal that did not include both a finding of moral turpitude and any agreed-upon amended indictment between the parties that completely exonerated the prosecution from Netanyahu’s charges against them of manufacturing the case and that found him unequivocally guilty of corruption.
The outgoing attorney-general then viewed any negotiation over this narrative as something that will be its own drawn-out process, which would be impossible for him to complete.
Theoretically, Mandelblit could continue negotiations with State Attorney Amit Aisman, who will temporarily replace him until a new attorney-general is appointed, but all signs are that Aisman has no interest in concluding the deal.
This would not only be because he will not really be wielding the full authority of a permanent attorney-general, but also because Netanyahu fought hard to prevent him from getting the job he eventually got.
Among the candidates for next attorney-general, Netanyahu’s most sympathetic possibility would likely be current Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri, who was the most skeptical of senior officials in the Justice Ministry about the Netanyahu cases.
However, most predictions are that no new attorney-general will have the standing to grant Netanyahu any deal more lenient than Mandelblit was offering. This was especially true after seeing how strongly the Netanyahu case prosecution team was ready to turn on Mandelblit when they were concerned the deal would not be a decisive end both to Netanyahu’s career and to his narrative regarding the cases.
THE OTHER factor that will only make negotiating a deal harder for Netanyahu is that former top aide turned state’s witness Shlomo Filber is due to start testifying in the next week or two.
Filber is expected to complete the circle and fill in any gaps in the media bribery charges against the former prime minister following the testimony of another top former Netanyahu aide turned state’s witness, Nir Hefetz.
Likud MK Miri Regev was the first to react to Netanyahu’s announcement.
“I was happy to hear Netanyahu’s message that he will remain head of Likud and the Right,” she said. “Netanyahu was right to listen to the public and the faction, including myself, that he has to fight for his innocence until the end.”
Likud leadership candidate Israel Katz said: “Netanyahu made a courageous decision, and as I promised, we will all stand behind him and support him and continue working together to topple this dangerous government and return the Likud to power.”
In response, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar told KAN News: “The prosecution must be completely free to decide on their own. As justice minister, I cannot get involved.”
Speaking at a meeting of his New Hope faction, Sa’ar denied reports that he has been negotiating the return of his party’s MKs to the Likud in the event of the departure of current party leader Netanyahu as part of a plea agreement. Sa’ar called the reports “fake news.”
“We see what is happening in the sword fight inside Likud,” he said. “We have no interest in taking part in that or taking a side. The Likud should handle its internal battle on its own to its own delight without involving us. I have no intention of returning to the Likud.”
In an obvious reference to Netanyahu without mentioning his name, Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid told his Yesh Atid faction a bill must be passed immediately that would prevent anyone who committed a crime involving moral turpitude from serving as a prime minister, a minister, an MK or a mayor.
Lapid revealed at the meeting that he maintains good and constant ties with former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.
“I think it is a terrific idea that Eisenkot and people like him enter politics and, of course, an even more terrific idea that he join Yesh Atid,” Lapid said.
Gil Hoffman and Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.