Netanyahu plea deal talks appear to be in dire straits, as AG’s departure looms

Media reports indicate sides are increasingly pessimistic of prospects of reaching agreement before Mandelblit’s term ends on January 31

(L) Benjamin Netanyahu during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, January 5, 2022. (R) Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a confrence in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
(L) Benjamin Netanyahu during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, January 5, 2022. (R) Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a confrence in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Contacts on a plea deal between former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the state prosecution appeared to be in dire straits Wednesday evening, with sources close to both sides telling Hebrew media outlets that it appeared increasingly unlikely that an agreement could be reached in the near future.

Netanyahu met with his lawyers at the office of attorney Boaz Ben Zur for long hours to discuss the state of negotiations. However, the reports indicated that the gaps between the sides appeared to be too wide to be bridged in the short time left in Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s tenure — seen as a key window for securing a deal.

According to Channel 12, Mandelblit’s associates are now almost certain that a deal will not be struck.

“There is nothing, and there won’t be anything,” one source close to Mandelblit told Channel 12, riffing on the message Netanyahu long used to describe the cases against him.

Channel 13 reported that both sides believe that there will not be an agreement before Mandelblit steps down as attorney general at the end of the month, with Netanyahu’s associates telling the network that the attorney general had gotten cold feet after the emerging deal was heavily criticized within the state prosecution.

“The way it looks now, the game is up,” an unnamed source told Channel 13, which noted that Netanyahu’s team is “very frustrated,” while convinced that a deal is still possible if Mandelblit wants it.

Channel 12 said there were also differences of opinion among Netanyahu’s attorneys. According to this report, Ben Zur and Amit Hadad are convinced that the rumored plea bargain is a “dream deal,” while Netanyahu family attorney Yossi Cohen believes that signing the arrangement would be a very grave mistake for Netanyahu and that his legacy would be tainted if he pleaded guilty.

Channel 13 said that the latest offer for a deal sent to Netanyahu’s attorneys includes a “moral turpitude” clause, which would bar the former premier from political life for seven years. The deal drawn up by Mandelblit and prosecutors would also require the opposition leader to perform seven to nine months of community service.

According to the report, Mandelblit has now moved away from an earlier idea of allowing the trial judges to rule on the question of the moral turpitude clause, rather than having it be an integral part of the deal, and wants it to be agreed to upfront. Netanyahu has been reported to be wary of doing so in case the negotiations subsequently break down.

The defense attorneys told the attorney general’s office in a Wednesday phone conversation that they were willing to accept a moral turpitude clause as an ultimate result, but not as a starting point in negotiations, Channel 13 said.

Unnamed individuals involved in the negotiations told the outlet that the coming period was key, and would determine whether there was a deal or if the negotiations would fail.

“These are two critical days — whether [the talks] blow up or if there are intensive negotiations,” they said.

Demonstrators protest against a planned plea deal with Benjamin Netanyahu near the home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in Petah Tikva, on January 15, 2022. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Reports have swirled in recent days claiming Netanyahu was nearing a deal with Mandelblit. Many of the reports have been unsourced and contradictory.

Reports have listed Mandelblit’s 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.

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.

There have been no formal confirmations of an emerging deal from either side, and there are numerous obstacles that could slow or torpedo an agreement. Curiously, the only official comment has been from Netanyahu’s lawyers, who on Monday issued a statement saying that Netanyahu has not announced that he accepted the “moral turpitude” designation; this was in response to a TV report that said he had.

Thus far, the main reported stumbling block to reaching a deal has been Mandelblit’s reported insistence on including the “moral turpitude” clause. But a Channel 12 report on Wednesday afternoon said the opposition leader and his lawyers also fear that were he to sign a plea deal admitting to fraud and breach of trust, the judges could decide to impose a prison term rather than the community service punishment sought in the deal.

Both Channels 12 and 13 had reported on Tuesday that Mandelblit has cooled to the possibility of a plea deal, due to the approaching end to his term and as a result of the backlash in the public and the prosecution to the possibility of a deal.

An unnamed official in the prosecution told Channel 12 that the chances of the deal going through before Mandelblit steps down at the end of January were slim, because “every day that passes really diminishes the possibility of getting there.”

Kan news said Tuesday that associates of Netanyahu said the groundwork for a deal was in place, and, if necessary, negotiations could resume with Mandelblit’s successor.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surrounded by Likud lawmakers, gives a televised statement before the start of his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court, on May 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to analysts, the belief that fraud and breach of trust is a light charge is a misconception. Ex-mayor of Bat Yam Shlomo Lahiani, ex-MK Stas Misezhnikov, and Bank Hapoalim’s former director Danny Dankner were all jailed in plea bargains that saw them admit to fraud and breach of trust.

In Netanyahu’s case, the sides have reportedly agreed that he will not see prison time for those same charges.

On Monday, Netanyahu was reported to have agreed to accept the “moral turpitude” designation in a plea bargain. Following that report, Netanyahu’s spokesman released a statement that quoted his lawyers saying the former prime minister “has not announced he agrees to moral turpitude.”

Netanyahu himself appeared to downplay rumors that he had decided to sign a plea deal. “Guys, there’s nothing to update you on. If there’s something to update, I’ll update,” a statement quoted him as telling MKs in his Likud party on Monday evening.

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.

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