Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has been negotiating a possible plea bargain with opposition leader minister Benjamin Netanyahu primarily out of concern that the current coalition may collapse and the former prime minister could return to power before his trial is completed, allowing Netanyahu to then make radical changes to the democratic system that would enable him to escape justice, according to associates quoted in a Friday report.
The somewhat-shaky coalition is made up of eight disparate parties from across the political spectrum, and if it were to fall apart, there could be a new round of elections with Netanyahu still at the head of the Likud party.
According to a Friday report by the Haaretz daily, a fear of this situation occurring and Netanyahu becoming prime minister again is the reason the attorney general has entered into negotiations for a plea deal that could potentially see a “moral turpitude” clause that would bar the opposition leader from political life for seven years.
The report, based on conversations with people who have spoken with Mandelblit, said the attorney general remains deeply concerned that Netanyahu poses a threat to democracy.
Mandelblit “sees [Netanyahu] as a corrupt man and a clear and present danger even now, when he is only the head of the opposition,” the report said. (The attorney general was quoted last month telling associates that Netanyahu was fraying democracy in his final period in office, making “a sophisticated attempt” to “change the DNA” of the justice system and the free press.)
Mandelblit’s reported willingness to sign a plea deal is not because he fears the indictment he brought against Netanyahu is weak; indeed, Mandelblit is reportedly convinced that if the trial runs its course, Netanyahu will be convicted and imprisoned.
And Mandelblit is wary of a situation in which a former prime minister, still widely admired by swathes of the population, goes to jail, the report said. However, the report said, his concerns about Netanyahu serving prison time are not the main reason behind the push for a deal.
Rather, the report said, “Mandelblit fears if the shaky government collapses, and Netanyahu returns to power, he would make fundamental changes to Israel’s democracy that would enable him to escape justice and leave Israel with a system of governance similar to Poland and Hungary.”
Since reports of the negotiations emerged earlier this month, they have generally said that Mandelblit has been demanding that any plea deal with Netanyahu include a clause of “moral turpitude.”
This requirement was underlined on Thursday by Deputy State Attorney Shlomo Lamberger, who made the first public remarks by a senior justice official on the offer, telling a conference held by the Israel Bar Association that it would be “inconceivable” for a plea deal not to include the clause.
However, according to a report on Friday, Mandelblit initially offered Netanyahu a far more lenient plea deal in his corruption trial than the one currently being discussed, but backed away due to a flood of pressure from key figures in the prosecution.
Netanyahu, 72, the current opposition leader, would reportedly only have had to commit to stepping away from public life for two years, with the charges also being significantly lowered in two of the cases against him and dismissed in the third.
Netanyahu is on trial in three separate graft cases: for fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. Under the reported potential deal, the bribery charge in Case 4000 would be dropped, and Case 2000 would be closed altogether.
The reports have listed Mandelblit’s current conditions for an agreement as follows: Netanyahu admits to fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 4000; he accepts the designation of moral turpitude; he will be sentenced to seven to nine months of community service; and he admits to having instructed former Communications Ministry director Shlomo Filber to provide benefits to the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq media company, Shaul Elovitch — the main accusation against the former premier in case 4000.
However, the Channel 12 report Friday said that Mandelblit had previously agreed to Netanyahu stepping away from public office for just two years. It also said that the proposed agreement could have had included a suspended jail sentence, as opposed to the community service and suspended sentence currently on offer.
In addition, the attorney general was prepared to not only drop Case 2000 and the bribery charges, but also to reduce the fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 4000 to “a lower level.”
Mandelblit was forced to change course due to a deluge of criticism over the lenient terms from senior justice officials and the prosecution, the report said, adding that many of these officials, including some working directly on the Netanyahu trial, were not told of the negotiations.
The TV report also accused the Attorney General’s Office of duplicity, saying it has tried to present the negotiations as though they are a recent development, when in fact talks have been going on formally, but in secret, for at least five months, and possibly since last July, with at least five meetings between the sides.
Friday night reports on Channel 12 and 13 claimed both sides now believe that there will not be an agreement before Mandelblit steps down as attorney general at the end of the month.
Both Channel 12 and 13 said that it was likely a deal would eventually be reached, noting that politicians in both camps were already gearing up for the post-Netanyahu era.
Netanyahu denies all allegations against him, and claims the charges were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution service, overseen by a weak attorney general, in league with political opponents and the leftist media.