Israel media review

Netanyahu at the plea market: What the press says about bargain hunting with Bibi

The press is paying close attention to plea deal talks with the Likud head, seeing an agreement as a game-changer both for the opposition leader and the future of the coalition

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

A Likud party supporter holds a campaign poster featuring then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on April 7, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Likud party supporter holds a campaign poster featuring then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on April 7, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Copping a deal? The press Friday is awash in reports of a possible plea deal between opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in the graft cases against him, after secret talks between them were revealed by journalist Ben Caspit on Wednesday.

  • According to Channel 13, Netanyahu started considering a plea deal after receiving a legal assessment that key state’s witness Nir Hefetz’s recent testimony was effective for the prosecution’s case, and amid concerns that the upcoming testimony of another state’s witness, Shlomo Filber, could also be damaging.
  • TV networks claim that the two sides are very close to signing a deal, although one major sticking point remains. The problem is that the networks don’t quite agree on whether the sticking point is prosecutors’ insistence that the deal include community service and a finding of moral turpitude (Channel 13) or whether he must resign from the Knesset and then how moral turpitude plays into that (Channel 12).
  • Moral turpitude, which is something most English speakers only hear in comically overwrought declamations of some reprobate or another, is a fairly important concept in Israel’s semi-crime-infested political ring. Having a judge stick a moral turpitude tag on a crime means a seven-year ban on scratching that political itch, keeping Netanyahu out of politics until he’s old enough to join the Mahjong circuit.
  • As ToI editor David Horovitz helpfully breaks it down: “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. …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.”
  • Or as Haaretz breaks it down in decidedly fewer words on its front page: “No bribery, no jail: To remove Netanyahu from power, Mandelblit is prepared for excessive concessions.”
  • And the second-guessing of Mandelblit does not end there. In the same paper, Yossi Verter notes that Netanyahu fears that while Mandelblit, who is set to retire at the end of the month, is willing to play ball, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar will ensure the next attorney general is not. “Netanyahu’s lawyers saw the lenient agreements that Mandelblit closed with Shas’s Arye Deri and Likud’s Haim Katz and recommended that their client hop on the bandwagon before somebody else takes the reins. Ultimately, Mandelblit was the best attorney general Netanyahu could have had. Bibi and his family could have been 10 times worse off had it not been for the attorney general’s namby-pamby hesitations,” he writes.
  • That sentiment is echoed by Channel 12’s Guy Peleg, who reports that a deal for Netanyahu has been on the table all along, but now the ex-PM is worried that the new AG will punt the decision back down to prosecutors Liat Ben Ari and Amit Aisman, who are giving Netanyahu as little leeway as possible.
  • “As far as I know, it seems those two would not agree to give Netanyahu his dream deal, which it’s safe to assume he could get in the next few weeks.”
  • Writing for Mako, Israel Cohen says turpitude is the only thing that matters. “Ending the saga without turpitude is worth the same as Netanyahu winning, and he cannot settle for anything less. Fraud, breach of trust, community service and any other million things won’t change the minds of either side: Those who think Netanyahu is innocent even if he’s found guilty, and those who think he’s guilty even if he’s cleared. Thus, all Netanyahu needs to do is get out without turpitude and run in the next election.”
  • If only it were so simple. Kan, which reports that Netanyahu’s lawyer is pushing for the negotiations against a Netanyahu family that thinks they should keep the trial going, points out that even if the sentence doesn’t carry moral turpitude, the head of the central elections committee could declare that any prison sentence of three months or more is tantamount to a finding of turpitude.
  • Former deputy attorney general Yehuda Shefer tells Army Radio that there is pretty much no chance of there being a deal that includes Netanyahu wiggling out of turpitude. “[All this talk] is really just spin from Netanyahu’s lawyers, and I fear it could wind up hurting him in court. The indictment was already served under the assumption that there were serious crimes here carrying turpitude, so there’s no sense in giving up on it.”

2. Reading the plea leaves: Netanyahu’s political future isn’t the only one at stake here, with pundits playing their favorite game of predict the post-Netanyahu future. And everyone gets about the same answer from their crystal ball.

  • As Israel Hayom’s Moti Tuchfeld puts it: Netanyahu leaving public life may bring about the collapse of the coalition, but it will be seen as a great victory for the camp that has been trying for a decade to defeat its greatest political threat.”
  • Ynet augurs that Netanyahu’s exit would spark a reset of sorts. “The immediate return to power of Netanyahu, who they worked so hard to remove, will no longer be possible, and so all the coalition parties will be able to return to their ideological bases. In this case, the differences between them will sharpen, which could crack apart the soft foundation [the coalition] is built upon,” Moran Azulai writes. “Also, once Netanyahu is replaced as Likud head, the party will again be a legitimate potential coalition partner for most parties now in the coalition, allowing them to realize the right-wing majority they have now in the Knesset.”
  • Zman Yisrael’s Shalom Yerushalmi reports that Likud’s bylaws actually forbid a leader who served at least three months time (community service counts), and while the rules could be changed, they might not be: “No senior politician was willing to put on his shoulders the possibility that the leader could be at the end of his career. Everyone is worried right now, but the broad estimation is that if Netanyahu leaves the field, the senior [Likud] politicians will keep him out and he won’t be accounted for anymore.”
  • Channel 13, which sees new elections or a new government in the offing, reports that Likud would-be leaders are also jockeying for position for the day after: “The biggest question hovering over the party is whether the next Likud chief will be picked by the central committee, which would help Israel Katz’s chances, or will be chosen via open primaries, which could give a boost to Yuli Edelstein or Nir Barkat.”

3. The bark that bites: For a few minutes this week, it looks like the coalition might collapse anyway. Over trees. Being planted. In the earth.

  • Bedouin in the northern parts of the southern Negev desert have been rioting for several days over the organized tree plantings, in honor of the upcoming Jewish arbor day of the 15th of Shvat. They see the planting as part of a government effort to expel them from their unrecognized hamlets.
  • The planting and the ensuing violent clashes with police have threatened to topple Israel’s rickety, motley coalition, with the Islamist Ra’am party vowing to boycott plenum votes as long as Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund’s (KKL-JNF) work continued in the Negev, where the party enjoys its largest bloc of support. But even with an agreement to stop the plantings, the rioting has continued.
  • Press reports Friday morning are filled with breathless reports of the violence of the previous night (“A night of fighting,” reads Walla’s top headline), much of which is made up of regurgitated police statements, and the occasional reporter standup from the scene.
  • Israel Hayom quotes one protester, named Mustafa, who explains why the rioting is happening and why it’s not stopping: “People have been living on that land, and making a living off of it for decades. The work stopped but hasn’t ended. Nobody achieved anything, not Jews or Arabs, and that annoys people, because we fear [the plantings] will pick up again in another place or another village. We know there are dozens of KKL [work plans] for the upcoming weeks.”
  • The tabloid runs a front-page headline calling the fighting a “battle for sovereignty,” reflecting the right-wing argument that the Bedouin are in control thanks to Ra’am being in the coalition.
  • Speaking to Army Radio, Attiah al-Aslam, head of the council of unrecognized communities, says the police are certainly not wielding control properly. “We told the police they need to close the road and they agreed. The protest started and then suddenly the cops said ‘you have 10 minutes to clear out’ and then started using stun grenades and tear gas. People inhaled smoke, including the elderly and kids, and that’s where the rioting started.”
  • In ToI, Aaron Boxerman dives into the heart of the issue, whether the plantings are innocent acts or political/nationalistically minded.
  • “‘Planting is an effective tool to preserve public lands for future use for any need. In the future, the area can be transformed into industrial or residential land,’ argued an Israeli government official in the south, who spoke on condition of anonymity.”
  • But experts say afforestation projects are also implemented for political reasons: to remove Bedouins from disputed land, and with them, their claim to the area. The Israeli government views the move as protecting state lands from illegal squatters,” Boxerman writes. “‘It’s a kind of soft expulsion. There are two major means [to do this] in the south: foresting and ecological zones on the one hand, and the declaration of live-fire zones for military training,’ said Thabet Abu Ras, who co-directs the Abraham Initiatives shared society nonprofit.”
  • But Haaretz’s lead editorial leaves no room for where it stands on the issue: “Only the naive can believe that planting the trees near the Bedouin villages Mulada and Sawa area was meant to celebrate Tu Bishvat or to improve the ecological fabric of the Negev. In reality, this is clearly a political initiative that boasts the title ‘Protection of State Land’ – in other words, a defense against a Bedouin land grab and a display of ‘governance’ toward them.”

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