It’s all about ‘turpitude’: Making sense of the Netanyahu plea bargain reports

The former PM wants to stay out of jail. The departing AG wants to secure a conviction. The sides can agree on all that. But there’s one crucial issue that’s dividing them

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-newly appointed cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 9, 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then cabinet secretary (later attorney general) Avichai Mandelblit attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 9, 2013. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

In the two years since he was indicted in three corruption cases, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been publicly adamant that he would neither seek nor accept a plea bargain.

Several weeks ago, however, according to unconfirmed reports over the last few days, one of his lawyers, Boaz Ben Zur, approached Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to begin discussions on precisely such a deal.

According to the thrust of the numerous, sometimes contradictory, and often confusing reports that have emerged this week on the two sides’ subsequent interactions, Mandelblit responded with a “framework” for a possible plea bargain that includes the following elements:

The state prosecution would remove the most serious of the charges against Netanyahu, that of bribery in Case 4000 — the case in which he is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of the former controlling shareholder of the Bezeq media company, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on the Walla news site, owned by Elovitch.

The state prosecution would also close Case 2000, in which Netanyahu allegedly negotiated, but never implemented, an illicit quid pro quo deal with then-Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the former prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed freebie Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

In return, Netanyahu would plead guilty to fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000, and likewise to fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000, in which he is alleged to have illicitly received benefits and expensive gifts from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan.

Netanyahu, according to this reported plea bargain framework advanced by Mandelblit, would not go to prison for these offenses, but would rather serve something in the order of six months’ community service.

Crucially, however, Mandelblit reportedly also emphasized that Netanyahu would have to accept that his crimes constituted “moral turpitude” — a designation that would see him barred from public office for seven years. According to Channel 13’s reporting of the contacts between the sides, Mandelblit made plain that unless Netanyahu was prepared to accept this, there was no point in their negotiating. TV reports on Thursday night suggested the “turpitude” issue is now the only element preventing the sealing of a plea bargain.

Pros and cons

Among the obvious advantages of such a plea bargain for Netanyahu is that it would keep him out of prison, would end his trial ordeal sooner rather than later, and would spare him further potential damaging testimony, including from forthcoming state witness Shlomo Filber, the former director general of the Communications Ministry whose evidence goes to the heart of that most serious of the cases, the Bezeq-Walla Case 4000.

Among the obvious disadvantages: the “turpitude” designation.

Netanyahu is 72 years old. Politicians all over the world are coming to power and retaining it later and later in life. In the US, Joe Biden is 79 and has his sights set on reelection; Donald Trump is 75 and eyeing a comeback. But amid all the rivalries, egos and ambitions of Israeli politics, a seven-year timeout would likely be terminal even for the healthy, masterful, record-breaking former prime minister Netanyahu. A conviction with “turpitude,” Channel 12 legal reporter Guy Peleg summarized dryly on Thursday night, would “close and lock Netanyahu’s glorious political career.”

As for Mandelblit, who is about to step down as attorney general after six years, the searing benefit of a plea bargain would be that he would leave office knowing that the most high-profile, high-stakes, resonant, nail-biting and fateful prosecution of his career, the one in which he took on a serving prime minister, had ended with a conviction. That he could not be accused, not easily at least, of having subverted Israeli democracy by expediting, or contributing to, the ouster of the nation’s leader on charges that he couldn’t ultimately make stick.

But here, too, the “turpitude” designation is central.

A deal in which Netanyahu “merely” admits to fraud and breach of trust, with no mandatory multi-year exclusion from public office, would not be as profoundly ignominious for Mandelblit as an acquittal. But it would nonetheless leave the attorney general open to the devastating allegation that he overreached, plunging Israel into this era of political instability with its multiple inconclusive elections, for the sake of offenses so relatively mild as to not require that their perpetrator vacate the national stage.

Time limit

Netanyahu, according to some of the most recent reports, is currently consulting with aides — and crucially with wife Sara and son Yair — about whether to take a deal. Mandelblit, for his part, has reportedly been working to assuage the anger of state prosecution colleagues, including those directly involved in the Netanyahu trial, who he kept out of the loop during his secret contacts with the defense.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his would-be successor Yair Lapid are doubtless watching developments closely — well aware that were Netanyahu to accept a plea bargain, admit to crimes with moral turpitude and depart, the anti-Netanyahu glue holding their right-left-center-Arab coalition together could quickly melt away, and the Knesset’s right-wing majority assert itself.

The various unconfirmed reports of the past few days may well be a little skewed, even lacking in essential details. There has been some speculation that Netanyahu initiated the contacts with Mandelblit in order to show that the state prosecution is prepared to drastically reduce the severity of the allegations — not to seek a deal, then, but to bolster his assertions that the cases are flimsy, the better to keep on fighting them, in Jerusalem District Court and the court of public opinion.

Netanyahu may have lost the prime ministership in June, but he’s been proving a robust leader of the opposition, remains chair of the Knesset’s biggest party, and has not in any credible assessment suffered a smoking-gun blow in his trial thus far. He hasn’t walked away yet, and he won’t easily walk away now.

But the plea bargain option would appear to be finite. Mandelblit steps down on January 31. The next attorney general, or acting attorney general as will initially be the case, cannot be relied upon to offer similar terms.

Netanyahu has insisted publicly throughout his legal battle that he’s been framed — by biased police investigators and a politicized state prosecution, allied with his political opponents and a leftist media. And all of that, he has claimed, overseen by a weak attorney general.

What seems to stand between him and a deal he could live with, one that would not “close and lock his glorious political career,” however, is that same attorney general, reportedly holding fast to the demand for the designation of “moral turpitude” in any plea bargain.

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