Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu publicly declared Monday that he has not agreed to acknowledge “moral turpitude” as part of a potential plea bargain that would end his corruption trial, and said he had no intention of leaving politics.
He issued the video statement, his first public reference to two weeks of reports on behind-the-scenes negotiations on a possible deal, in an apparent response to the collapse of the talks with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
The former prime minister vowed to remain the leader of his Likud party and of the right-wing political camp, and to eventually return to power and lead the country.
Soon after the video was posted to his social media accounts, a spate of Hebrew media reports said Mandelblit, whose term ends in a week, had earlier in the day informed Netanyahu’s attorneys that negotiations on a deal would have to wait until a new attorney general takes office.
Channel 13 claimed, without citing sources, that Netanyahu recorded the video last week and decided to publish it after Mandelblit informed his lawyers that negotiations would not be completed during his term. Sources familiar with the talks told the network that Netanyahu had in fact agreed to a moral turpitude plea, but then stepped back after Mandelblit’s notification.
“In recent days, there were mistaken claims made in the media on things that I allegedly agreed to, such as the claim that I agreed to moral turpitude,” Netanyahu said. “That is simply not correct.”
“I will continue to lead the Likud and the national camp in order to lead Israel, on your behalf,” he promised.
Netanyahu also thanked his “millions” of supporters and reiterated his accusation that he is being mistreated by law enforcement officials and the justice system, declaring that “the entire public can see what is happening in the courthouse and how the investigation against me was handled.”
He insisted that the proper course of action was to simply close the cases against him, “but that still hasn’t happened.”
Netanyahu had reportedly been hoping to seal a deal with Mandelblit, believing that the latter — a Netanyahu appointee — wanted to end his six-year term with a clean slate. However, media reports have increasingly indicated that the talks were proceeding too slowly, and the mistrust between the sides was too great, for a deal to be finalized before Mandelblit retires.
Since reports of the negotiations emerged earlier this month, they generally said Mandelblit was demanding that any plea deal with Netanyahu include a clause of “moral turpitude” — which would bar Netanyahu from public office for seven years. Some reports said that a period of just two years was also discussed in the plea bargain, and that Mandelblit backtracked after agreeing to this. In addition, the reports said that other charges would be significantly lowered in two of the cases against the former premier, and dismissed in the third.
The requirement for moral turpitude was underlined last Thursday by Deputy State Attorney Shlomo Lamberger, who made the first public remarks by a senior justice official on the offer, telling a conference held by the Israel Bar Association that it would be “inconceivable” for a plea deal not to include such a clause.
Both the Channel 12 and Channel 13 news stations assessed that Netanyahu’s relatively mild rhetoric in Monday’s video statement still leaves an opening for him to continue plea negotiations in the future.
Netanyahu was reported last week to be prepared to agree to moral turpitude but not as an opening commitment, in part because of his mistrust of Mandelblit and concern that a deal would fall apart.
Reacting to the developments, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told Channel 13 later Monday evening that Netanyahu’s video was “proof” of the need to pass a law he previously initiated as head of the opposition, which would bar anyone convicted of moral turpitude from serving as prime minister, minister, Knesset member or mayor.
Lapid said he suggested that law “precisely to prevent these kinds of phenomena. We must let the judicial process take its course.”
While refusing to say whether he supports a plea deal for Netanyahu, Lapid said the opposition chief “is damaging the political system and the State of Israel. He causes more rifts and divisions than anybody else. The most important thing for us [in the coalition] is to enable some kind of unity among the people of Israel. You can’t do that when someone keeps adding fuel to the fire. He causes damage.”
The message Mandelblit reportedly sent to Netanyahu’s legal team on Monday marked an acknowledgment by the attorney general that he would not personally be able to see out the biggest case of his tenure.
Netanyahu, 72, 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 have been dropped, and Case 2000 closed altogether. Mandelblit was said to have demanded that Netanyahu admit to fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 4000; accept the designation of moral turpitude; be sentenced to seven to nine months of community service; and admit 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 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.