The pros and cons of Netanyahu’s plea bargain - opinion

Though the current Gordian knot is unlikely to unravel within the next few weeks, within the next few months the picture is likely to clear up.

 OPPOSITION LEADER MK Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his ongoing trial at Jerusalem District Court in November. (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
OPPOSITION LEADER MK Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his ongoing trial at Jerusalem District Court in November.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)

There seems to be a widespread consensus in the public that the plea bargain between the State Attorney’s Office and Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been in the works in recent months, is undesirable.

However, this consensus does not indicate a sudden national unity but, rather, a deep division, because the arguments against the plea bargain of those who support Netanyahu and those who oppose him run counter to each other.

Netanyahu’s supporters from the political Right maintain that since Netanyahu is innocent, in their opinion, the three indictments against him are all fabricated, and are part of an undemocratic move by the Left to get rid of a right-wing government, contrary to the wishes of the majority of the voters, and that Netanyahu should go on fighting to prove his innocence in court, even though large sections of the Right have little faith in the current system of justice in Israel.

Large parts of this camp also argue that the case of the prosecution in the Jerusalem District Court in Netanyahu’s trial is clearly disintegrating, and there is no doubt in their minds that despite the assumed inclinations of the judges in the case, Netanyahu will emerge from the trial innocent.

The conviction of this public in its belief that Netanyahu should refuse to sign a plea bargain is so strong that at least part of it is willing to donate several million shekels to pay for his defense team, despite the fact that Netanyahu is a relatively wealthy man, who can easily pay for his defense from his own pocket.

 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)

It does not appear to be impressed by the fact that most of Netanyahu’s defense team believes that the plea bargain offered him by the attorney-general is a dream bargain, and that only the Knesset Ethics Committee can allow Netanyahu to make use of the money collected, but that the establishment of this committee has been blocked by the Likud as part of its obstruction tactics since the current government was formed. On the basis of precedents of similar cases, it is unlikely that if the Ethics Committee were to be established, it would approve Netanyahu’s using this money for his trial.

Netanyahu’s opponents from the political Left, who have no doubt that Netanyahu is guilty of most, if not all, the charges against him, plus numerous other offenses for which he was not charged, maintain that Netanyahu is unlikely to abide by the conditions of the plea bargain, because of his proven record of breaking agreements.

Furthermore, they argue that a plea bargain would enable him to continue to claim his complete innocence (irrespective of what he accepts in the agreement), and to continue his ferocious attacks against Israel’s law enforcement authorities and its current government.

Therefore, they argue, it is preferable to continue with the trial, even though it is likely to last for five, six or even seven years, and might end up with a lenient verdict.

Nevertheless, there is a minority within the Right that thinks Netanyahu should accept the plea bargain, because they do not believe that he will get a fair trial, and he had better cut his losses and simply go on with his life. There is also a minority within the Left that believes that a plea bargain, which would include an admission by Netanyahu of the main charges against him, a revoked prison sentence replaced by service for the community, and a declaration of turpitude, is desirable if it will rid Israel’s political scene of Netanyahu’s destructive presence, even if only temporarily.

As long as the trial continues, they argue, and unless the law is changed with regard to prime ministers being allowed to continue to serve under indictment, or run in new elections, there will be nothing to stop Netanyahu from returning to the Prime Minister’s Office before there is a final verdict in his trial, in another five, six or seven years.

I must admit that my own feelings on the issue are mixed.

On the one hand, I believe that Netanyahu should not be allowed to get away with his highly problematic conduct and his total denial that any wrongdoing was done by him, and should also be forced to provide proof – any sort of proof – to his conspiracy theory that there has been a concerted attempt by all the law enforcement agencies to bring him down from power by invalid and undemocratic means. Only in court will it be possible to force him to confront this issue fairly and squarely.

On the other hand, I am aware of the fact that a large section of the public will not be convinced by a verdict against Netanyahu, no matter how strong the evidence that might lead to such a verdict, so that for the sake of trying to reestablish some sort of ceasefire among us, it is preferable to avoid a prolonged and tortuous trial, which would only aggravate the schism, at least over the issue of Netanyahu’s private and political future.

HAVING SAID all of this, the question is whether we, the public, really have a say on the matter, since, as things look at the moment, it doesn’t seem as if a plea bargain will be signed before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit retires next Monday. As far as we are informed, Netanyahu is unwilling to admit his guilt on most of the charges, and is unwilling to accept turpitude, while Mandelblit’s position has become more stringent since he introduced additional attorneys from the State Attorney’s Office into the details of the negotiations.

Of course, this does not mean that a plea bargain cannot be signed after Mandelblit retires, either with his temporary replacement – State Attorney Amit Aisman – or the next attorney-general, after she or he is appointed.

The current hustle and bustle within the Likud over the day after Netanyahu departs from the political scene (or at least from the Knesset, which is one of the implications of a plea bargain) seems to indicate that at least those who see themselves as Netanyahu’s potential heirs believe that a plea bargain will finally mature and be signed, especially since Netanyahu seems intent on this scenario.

As to the current government, there is no doubt that Netanyahu’s departure will increase the chances of its premature disintegration. Despite the fact that most of the right-wingers in the current government will probably have difficulty reintegrating into a purely right-wing, religious government, according to most recent opinion polls, though the Likud under all of Netanyahu’s potential heirs will receive less votes than him, their chances of forming a coalition are better than his, primarily because while there is a strong “just not Bibi” sentiment, there is much less of a “just not the Likud” sentiment.

Though the current Gordian knot is unlikely to unravel within the next few weeks, within the next few months the picture is likely to clear up. My feeling is that sooner or later a plea bargain will be signed, and for better or worse we shall enter the post-Netanyahu era.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, soon to be published in English by Routledge.