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Likud struggles for unified response amid reports that Netanyahu seeks a plea deal

Likud MKs alternately rail against deal and profess loyalty, but some ponder succeeding long-time party leader; supporters donate NIS 2 million to fund continued legal fight

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Head of opposition and of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, November 15, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Head of opposition and of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, November 15, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Reports in recent days that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is negotiating a plea deal to end his corruption trial — possibly seeing him barred from politics for seven years — have rocked the Likud party, which he has held in a vice-like grip for nearly two decades.

Since the news first broke on Thursday, Likud parliamentarians, party members and supporters alike have grappled with two central issues: should Netanyahu take a deal at all, and should he take a deal that includes a judgment of “moral turpitude” – a designation that would remove the 72-year-old opposition leader from political office for 7 years.

It’s a thought that even has some MKs mulling the prospect of succeeding Netanyahu, despite protestations of undying loyalty.

Netanyahu became Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted on corruption charges, filed by the State Attorney’s Office in January 2020. Netanyahu, now leader of the opposition,  is currently on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, and an additional charge of bribery in one of the three cases. He has long denied guilt in all cases and instead has characterized the charges as a “witch hunt” against him and his family, or a “judicial coup” to take power away from him and Likud voters.

While Hebrew-language media has been consumed with reports about the possibility of a plea deal being negotiated between Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and its contents, no official source has confirmed that the deal is actively being negotiated or its terms. The State Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Chances for a deal are unclear.  Mandelblit has two weeks remaining before he leaves his post on January 31 and the general consensus is that the deal potentially being discussed may end with his tenure.

That hasn’t stopped a flurry of speculation and debate in the Likud, where the long-running narrative of personal attack and election-stealing is strong, and where members are generally encouraging Netanyahu to refuse a deal. Even Likud’s parliamentarians are giving the impression that they haven’t unified around a message.

Likud MK Miri Regev in Jerusalem’s Old City, November 29, 2021. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Likud MK and former minister Miri Regev said on Sunday that “the whole case was a despicable effort to get rid of a right-wing Prime Minister, hatched [by the state prosecution] in Salah-e-Din Street.”

As proof, Regev said that the reported plea will dismiss the harshest charge against Netanyahu – bribery – as part of a deal that would lead to a finding of moral turpitude.

“The trial is collapsing,” Regev said, explaining her take on why the deal is being offered now.

Regev also expressed public support for Netanyahu to continue fighting the legal process, with the presumption that he would prove the corruption cases were concocted by political rivals. “If it were up to me, I would tell him ‘continue until the end,’” said Regev to Hebrew-language television on Sunday. “Because in the end, it won’t be Benjamin Netanyahu standing trial, but rather those who fabricated these cases so quickly.”

Likud MK Galit Distel Atbaryan gave a different flavor of support, saying she’d support Netanyahu with whatever decision he makes. “If [Netanyahu] now wants to rest, let him turn to whoever he wants,” Distel Atbaryan similarly told Hebrew-language newscasters on Sunday. “I personally want him to continue the trial, but I will be the last that will judge him if he wants to rest.”

Additionally, some Likud MKs are creating room for a rare contest – the potential first time the Likud chairmanship will be up for grabs since Netanyahu retook the helm in 2005. Netanyahu was previously Likud chairman from 1993 to 1999.

Likud MK Amir Ohana attends a Knesset committee meeting, December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Saturday, Likud MK and former minister Amir Ohana told Hebrew-language television that “it is not impossible that I will run for Likud chairman after Netanyahu resigns,” opening the door for discussing a day after Netanyahu, in addition to statements against Netanyahu taking a plea deal.

Ohana, as well as Regev, are considered potential contenders for Likud chairmanship, should Netanyahu exit Israeli politics as consequence of a deal including the designation of moral turpitude.

Former health minister Yuli Edelstein has publicly said he will challenge for the party leadership, while ex-finance minister Israel Katz and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat are also expected to be among those who will try and succeed Netanyahu, should he go.

Joab Tzarum, secretary of the Likud’s Ramat Gan branch – a post within the Likud’s national party mechanism, but not connected to the Knesset – was more forceful in his support for Netanyahu, only wanting a deal that would allow him to come back to power by the next Knesset.

“If the deal will happen, one that allows him to come back in the next term, I would go for it,” Tzarum told the Times of Israel. “What does it matter what he [admits to, if he can be back in politics]?”

“His base is strong, even if admits to the Kennedy murder…he has no problem.”

Regarding a possibility where Netanyahu would sign a deal that included moral turpitude and temporary expulsion from the political arena, Tzarum was adamant that he was against it.

“No, no, definitely not [that option.]”

A grassroots campaign, started by journalist and right-wing political activist Yinon Magal, raised over 2 million shekels ($643,000) to ostensibly support the Netanyahu family’s legal costs if they continue the trial within its first ten hours on Sunday. The Netanyahu family will likely not be able to receive the money due to Knesset ethics rules, but the stunt is a testament to loyalty felt by Netanyahu’s base.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at the press conference announcing his decision to make then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stand trial, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s voter base has been famously loyal to him, personally. A former right-wing political operative even went so far as to call them “utterly cultlike” in discussion with the Times of Israel.

Echoing the strength of Netanyahu’s support, according to a poll by Channel 12, if elections were to happen today, Netanyahu at the helm of the Likud still pulls the highest number of Knesset seats, 30, across any party.

Polls for Channel 12 and 13 found that around half of Israelis are against the potential plea deal, 51% and 46%, respectively. From the right, Netanyahu’s supporters believe the deal is unfair or that Netanyahu should fight to prove his innocence. From the left, opponents to the deal think it is not harsh enough or deprives Israel of perceived justice, should Netanyahu be found guilty of corruption.

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