The Netanyahu plea talks: genuine or shticks and tricks? - analysis

Just like that, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-discussed plea deal is off the table. Or is it?

 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)

Now you see it, now you don’t.

Just like that, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-discussed plea deal is off the table. Or is it?“In recent days, false claims have been published in the media about things that I allegedly agreed to, such as that I agreed to the moral turpitude clause,” Netanyahu said in a brief Facebook video on Monday, referring to a part of the deal being discussed that would have meant Netanyahu would be barred from politics for seven years. “This is simply incorrect.”

What Netanyahu did not say in the 65-second video, his first public statements on a possible plea deal, was that his lawyers had received messages recently from Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, saying that his position on the deal had stiffened, and he was no longer prepared to conclude one.

What Netanyahu did say was, “I will continue to lead the Likud and the national camp in order to lead the state of Israel.”

So what is going on? Is this real or just positioning?

 Protests outside A-G Avichai Mandelblit's home as reports come in that he is close to a plea deal with former prime minister Netanyahu, January 15, 2022 (credit: CRIME MINISTER) Protests outside A-G Avichai Mandelblit's home as reports come in that he is close to a plea deal with former prime minister Netanyahu, January 15, 2022 (credit: CRIME MINISTER)

Ever since news broke some three weeks ago that Netanyahu’s lawyers had been in contact with Mandelblit’s office about reaching a plea deal, the entire saga felt – in the contradictory messages being made public – almost like coalition negotiations. And, as in all coalition negotiations, it is difficult to tell what is genuine and what is posturing.These, too, are negotiations. Netanyhau’s side tried to remove the moral turpitude clause, and the attorney-general insisted that it remain. There were reports that both Netanyahu’s family on one side, and prosecution lawyers who have been working the case for years on the other, were against the deal.

However, like all coalition negotiations, these messages may have only been ways to get leverage in these negotiations. For if there is one thing Netanyahu has learned in his long political career, it is how to negotiate.There were a few interesting takeaways from the video.

The first is that while Netanyahu denied that he ever agreed to the moral turpitude clause being inserted in the plea deal, he didn’t deny that negotiations were underway or that he initiated contact with Mandelblit’s office.

This is telling, inasmuch as Netanyahu confidants in recent days have been saying his agreeing to a plea, and possibly admitting to the lesser fraud and breach-of-trust clauses, does not necessarily mean that Netanyahu believes he is guilty of any wrongdoing, but rather that he does not feel he can get a fair verdict from judges who have come up through the system. For were the judges to acquit, they would be casting doubt on the integrity of the entire process, which would be difficult for products of the legal system to do.

According to this reasoning, if there were jury trials in Israel, where the verdict is decided not by judges but rather by average citizens, Netanyahu’s chances would be better.

Equally telling, Netanyahu, in his video, did not cast any aspersions on the legal process, as he has said abundantly in the past, or on the integrity of the system. Nor did he say that he didn’t think he could get a fair trial. His only criticism this time – as opposed to previously, when he alleged that the entire affair was cooked up against him to destroy him politically – was rather veiled.

“The entire public sees what is happening in court and how the investigation against me was conducted,” he said. “There is enough to close the cases against me right now, but it has not happened yet.”

The second major takeaway from the brief video was a signal to Likud MKs jockeying for position to cool it, that the reports of his political death were premature, and that it is too early for all the claimants to the Likud crown to start taking out their knives. Netanyahu to all the Likud leader wannabees: “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Some argue that the video and the plea negotiations are all just a ploy, and that Netanyahu never really intended to go through with a plea deal. They say that by entering the negotiations, he got the prosecution to indicate that its case was weak by showing a willingness to drop bribery charges – the most serious charge he was facing – as well as to close one of the three cases against him.

The problem with that argument, however, is, so what?

So if Netanyahu wins points with the public by the prosecution now being seen as willing to drop some charges, if he balks at the plea, and the case runs through until the end, then he is gambling. Maybe he will be acquitted, but then again, maybe he will be convicted of even the bribery charge.

Surely Netanyahu’s lawyers are looking at the Moshe Katsav precedent.

Katsav, the disgraced president convicted of rape charges, was offered a plea bargain that would have had him plead guilty to several counts of sexual harassment and indecent acts and receive a suspended jail sentence.

He balked, apparently believing he would be acquitted, and ended up spending five years in prison.

Another argument behind Netanyahu’s making the video and saying he never agreed to the moral turpitude clause, is that his team believes the recent Calcalist revelations of the Israel Police’s unauthorized use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of mayors and activists without the court’s permission is a game-changer.

According to this theory, Netanyahu’s team knows that the same illicit methods were used to gather evidence in his cases, and that this is something that could have a significant impact on the judges’ verdicts in his case.

But why look for hidden messages or agendas in the video? Why not just take it at face value?

Because Netanyahu is Netanyahu, a man renowned for his political wiles as well as for political shticks and tricks. Until a deal is either signed or formally taken off the table, there will be those searching for something up his sleeve that they believe just must be there.