If Netanyahu is going to cut a plea deal, he’ll need to do so while still PM

The weakened Likud leader is growing pessimistic about his legal troubles, with good reason — the electorate dashed his hopes of immunity

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement on applying Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and its Jewish settlements, at a press conference in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement on applying Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and its Jewish settlements, at a press conference in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In a conversation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently held with one of his close associates, he said he did not see a way in which he could escape the corruption investigations against him unscathed.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases and bribery in one of them, pending a hearing before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The hearing has been set for October 2, which also happens to be the final date by which President Reuven Rivlin must task a lawmaker with forming a government.

In stark contrast to the confidence Netanyahu displays publicly, behind closed doors he allows his pessimism to show. Not because he thinks he is guilty, of course. Quite the contrary.

As far as he is concerned, every day that goes by further confirms his public contention that the system is rigged against him — the media that reported on every twist of the investigations and now publishes leaked, skewed transcripts of them; the police who pressured his aides to turn state’s witness; the biased state prosecution; the judiciary that has already sealed his fate. Netanyahu believes they have all banded together to ensure one thing — his imprisonment. “They’re not looking for the truth. There’s no way I can be acquitted,” he summed up to this associate.

The prime minister has attempted to find a way out of all of this via various immunity gambits and bills, but was stymied after April’s elections by his declining political fortunes.

At the same time, the option to seek a plea bargain was always in the background. One well-meaning confidant, nudging Netanyahu in that direction, has taken to urging him not to “make this deal too late.” Publicly, Netanyahu is adamant that this is not a path he will walk. False reports and rumors, his spokesman insisted on Thursday.

Attorney Ram Caspi. (Arik Sultan/Flash90, via Zman Yisrael)

Today, in the new, post-election reality, it is plain that Netanyahu’s immunity chances have gone. Likud has won 31 Knesset seats to challenger Blue and White’s 33, giving the right-wing bloc 55 seats and the center-left bloc 57 seats. There is no way for Netanyahu to reach the 61 out of 120 seats in parliament he would need to form a government of genuine loyalists — a majority who would work to save him from prosecution.

His only path to retaining power is in a national unity government with Blue and White, which would require Gantz to withdraw his repeatedly stated insistence that he will not partner with Netanyahu. Moreover, if Gantz can be wooed with the reward of rotating turn at the premiership, Netanyahu must be the first to serve as prime minister.

This is a critical point for him. With the system “rigged against him” as he claims, he has to be able to negotiate a plea bargain from a position of power.

This way, he could seek to have the worst charge, the bribery charge in the so-called Bezeq Case 4000, excluded from any future indictment, and cut a deal to plead guilty to fraud and breach of trust — with no actual jail time — in all three cases, in exchange for stepping down.

Attorney Ram Caspi, the legal heavyweight Netanyahu recently hired to aid in his defense, might be just the lawyer to make that deal come true.

Blue and White’s leaders, if they conclude that they have no option but to share power with him, would want Netanyahu to forego the first turn in a premiership rotation, preferring that he take those two years to sort out his legal affairs, possibly never to return. This is a non-starter for Netanyahu, as it would deprive him of his incumbency and public prominence — his chips to cash in for that dramatic plea deal.

Yet maybe Gantz should let Netanyahu take the first term, as it would likely be a very short one.

Netanyahu is not a political novice. He’s pored over the election results. He knows that to stay on as prime minister he needs an alliance with Blue and White. And so, on Thursday, after first making sure he had all of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties secured in his corner, he set out to court Gantz.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz attended the state memorial service for the late president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. Anyone there saw how eager Netanyahu was to capitalize on President Reuven Rivlin’s move to facilitate a handshake between the leaders of the rival political blocs: Gantz was a little wary; Netanyahu went for that clasp with both hands.

Netanyahu is more than willing to negotiate with Gantz now, even if Blue and White’s leader was, until Tuesday night, in the Likud leader’s repeatedly stated derisive and bitter depiction, a weak, unstable leftist, who can be blackmailed, who supported the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and who is willing to put Israel’s very existence at risk.

The voters have spoken, cutting much of the ground from under Netanyahu’s feet. So now Netanyahu is willing to give Gantz at least one set of the keys to the kingdom, and potentially, eventually, even the kingdom itself.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yet one of Gantz’s most important campaign promises — perhaps the most important, since his diverse party’s sole common goal was to oust Netanyahu — was that he would not enter a Netanyahu-led government. Blue and White co-founder Telem party leader Moshe Ya’alon reiterated that commitment at Thursday’s faction meeting, as have other top Blue and White officials.

In general, senior Blue and White officials have undergone some sort of metamorphosis in recent days, changing from a leaky, contradictory crew to a team practicing party discipline and paying close attention to every word they say. Notes are prepared before mouths are opened. No one ad libs. Perhaps that’s where the difference lies between a transient party formed for an election campaign and one that genuinely believes it has the capacity to govern.

And govern it might, given the results of the elections, if it can figure out how to leverage Netanyahu’s legal troubles to its benefit.

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed