A week before Avichai Mandelblit ended his term as attorney-general, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he had rejected a plea deal for the graft charges he faces, under which he would have accepted a moral turpitude clause that would ban him from politics for seven years.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister vowed to remain the leader of the Likud and fight to return to power.
Netanyahu is on trial in the Jerusalem District Court on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies the charges, claiming he is the victim of a left-wing witch hunt supported by the police and the elites in the judiciary and media.
It was revealed last month that lawyers for Netanyahu were negotiating with state prosecutors over a plea deal before Mandelblit – who was appointed by Netanyahu – stepped down from office at the beginning of February.
However, the attorney-general insisted that any deal contain a clause of moral turpitude, which would mean Netanyahu would be banned from public office for seven years, effectively ending the political career of the 72-year-old leader of Israel’s right.
“Citizens of Israel, in recent days, you’ve proven once again that I’m not alone and that millions of you are with me,” Netanyahu said in a video distributed to the media on January 24, announcing that there would be no deal. “You’ve deeply moved me. I’ll keep leading Likud and the national camp. The entire public sees what’s happening in court and how the investigation against me was led. That should have been enough to close the cases against me now, but it still hasn’t happened.
“In recent days, false claims have been reported in the media about things that I have purportedly agreed to, for example, the claim that I agreed to moral turpitude. It’s simply untrue.”
The current government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has a wafer-thin majority of just one in the 120-member Knesset, and the prospect of a return to power by Netanyahu is the glue that is keeping the disparate eight-party coalition together.
There was speculation that if a plea deal was clinched a new leader of the Likud could strike an agreement with right and centrist parties in the coalition to form an alternative government, without the left-wing Labor and Meretz and Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am United Arab List. However, senior Likud politicians were quick to rally around Netanyahu following his announcement that he was staying on as party leader.
“I was happy to hear Netanyahu’s message that he will remain head of Likud and the right,” said Miri Regev, one of the Likud MKs who has declared an intention of standing for leader of the party once Netanyahu steps down. “Netanyahu was right to listen to the public and the faction, including myself, that he has to fight for his innocence until the end.”
Another 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.”
Yuli Edelstein remains the only prominent Likud politician to declare he will challenge Netanyahu for party leader in the next primary.
In Mandelblit’s farewell remarks to cabinet ministers on the eve of stepping down, he made comments that were clearly aimed at Netanyahu, although he refrained from specifically mentioning his name.
“There were those who tried to present the harm [they sought to cause] to the rule of law as an ideological move, under the pretext of ‘governance,’” Mandelblit said. “But time and time again, we saw that what really stood behind these moves was a desire to advance personal interests, severely damaging the principle of fidelity to the public.”
Despite the failure of the defense team to clinch a deal with Mandelblit, it will still be theoretically possible to negotiate a plea bargain with his replacement. However, it is clear that the new attorney-general will not be able to grant Netanyahu a deal more lenient than what Mandelblit proposed.
When he met with leading prosecutors, Mandelblit came in for significant criticism over the emerging plea deal, which would have reportedly dropped the fraud and bribery clauses.
Netanyahu’s graft trial, which is expected to continue for at least two more years, involves three separate cases.
In the first of the three, known as Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are alleged to have received gifts worth 700,000 shekels, including cigars, pink champagne and jewelry, from wealthy friends.
Case 2000 centers on an allegation that Netanyahu asked the publisher of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper for positive coverage in exchange for help in reining in a rival publication, the popular, pro-Netanyahu free newspaper Yisrael Hayom. That paper was owned by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who died last year and was a close friend of Netanyahu at the time.
Case 4000 is the most serious of the three, and the only one involving bribery allegations. It involves claims that Netanyahu, while also serving as communications minister between 2015 and 2017, ensured financial benefits amounting to around 1.8 billion shekels for Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, which was owned by Shaul Elovitch. The benefits were in return for favorable coverage for Netanyahu and Sara on the popular news website Walla, also owned by Elovitch.
Bribery charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust carry a jail sentence of up to three years.
If this wasn’t enough, there was further bad news for Netanyahu at the end of January when the government decided to set up a state inquiry into Case 3000, the so-called “submarine affair.”
The case involves the 2009-2017 purchase from the German ThyssenKrupp conglomerate of three Dolphin-class submarines and four warships, needed among other tasks to protect Israel’s offshore gas platforms.
The government decision to authorize a commission of inquiry came just days after Israel finalized the purchase, as part of the deal, of three additional advanced subs, considered Israel’s most important strategic weapon providing second-strike capabilities in the case of a nuclear attack.
Even though Mandelblit had previously cleared Netanyahu of all criminal suspicions in the submarine affair, the commission will be empowered to compel him to testify, and his testimony could prompt an in-depth investigation of his actions.
Among the questions the commission is expected to examine is why Netanyahu kept both his defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and director-general Dan Harel in the dark over the deal, and why he also reportedly pushed for Germany to sell advanced submarines to Egypt without informing Israel’s defense establishment.
Ya’alon described the naval deals as “the most corrupt security affair in the history of the country.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, one of the prime advocates of a commission of inquiry, said that the decision did not stem from partisan considerations.
“I want to stress that I am not acting on personal motives but as the defense minister in response to a critical national need.”
As the dust settled following the failure to clinch a plea deal, one of the immediate political ramifications appears to be a push by Netanyahu and his supporters for early primaries to shore up his support within the Likud, following the talk of succession during the plea-deal negotiations.
Netanyahu wants a primary election this year, but those opposed to the idea argue that there is no point in holding primaries because a general election is not on the horizon, and such a contest would cost about 10 million shekels for a party already heavily in debt.
But with or without a primary contest, Netanyahu’s position as Likud leader is not under serious threat at this juncture. ■