Amid reports that opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s demand that a plea deal in his criminal trial include a clause banning him from public office, analysts are warning that several other key issues could yet slow or even torpedo the nascent agreement.
Netanyahu 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.
So far, the main reported stumbling block to reaching a deal has been the “moral turpitude” clause, which would bar Netanyahu from political life for seven years.
“Netanyahu decided to go for a deal and accept the attorney general’s bottom line,” an unnamed associate of the former prime minister told Channel 12 news Monday, referring to the “moral turpitude” designation. Netanyahu’s spokesman, in response, released a statement that quoted his lawyers saying the former prime minister “has not announced he agrees to moral turpitude.” Pundits noted the statement’s use of the word “announced,” rather than a full denial.
But even if the turpitude issue is agreed, there are further complications ahead, according to Channel 13 legal analyst Baruch Kra, with the indictment needing to be heavily rewritten.
According to reports in recent days, the details of a plea agreement that have already been agreed would include dropping the most serious charge against Netanyahu, for bribery in Case 4000, as well as the entire Case 2000, and seeing the defendant admit to fraud and breach of trust in the two remaining cases, 4000 and 1000. The sides have reportedly agreed that Netanyahu will not see prison time, and would be sentenced to three to six months of community service.
In Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts from two billionaires — Hollywood-based Israeli movie mogul Arnon Milchan and Australian magnate James Packer.
According to Kra, Netanyahu is asking to have the value of the illicit gifts he is accused of taking halved, whereas the attorney general is only willing to make minor adjustments so that in the end it does not appear to be a frivolous charge.
In addition, both sides need to play a careful balancing act, with the plea deal eventually needing to be approved by the judges at the Jerusalem District Court where his trial is ongoing. If the amended charges remain overly serious, the judges might not approve a community service sentence and insist on prison time. On the other hand, if the amended charges are too lenient, the prosecution runs the risk of having the case dismissed. The crime and the punishment need to fit.
Furthermore noted Emi Palmor, a former director general of the Justice Ministry, amending the charge sheet has major “implications for the other defendants,” requiring complex considerations. She told Channel 12 news on Tuesday it was hard to see how the complicated changes could be made quickly, noting that it took years to investigate and assemble the case.
Another specific area of dispute revolves around Case 4000, the most serious against the former premier, where he is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of controlling shareholder of the Bezeq media company Shaul Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage on the Walla news site, owned by Elovitch.
Here, Channel 13 reported Monday, Netanyahu wants a plea deal that won’t incriminate Elovitch.
However, Mandelblit is reportedly insisting that even if the most serious bribery charge is dropped, the charges will still reflect that Netanyahu had a conflict of interest when Elovitch was asking him for help worth millions of shekels.
Finally, it also remains unclear if a deal can be reached before Mandelblit’s term ends at the end of the month, with sources close to Mandelblit and in the State Attorney’s Office casting doubt on such a prospect. On Monday, Channel 13 said prosecutors remain doubtful that a deal is achievable before Mandelblit steps down.
The Ynet news site reported late Monday that all the senior officials in the State Attorney’s Office had met and concluded that it was unlikely that negotiations with Netanyahu could be completed before Mandelblit leaves office and that current State Prosecutor Amit Aisman, who will be acting attorney general from February 1, would have to make the final call.
Aisman reportedly supports the deal; however, Channel 13 said that Netanyahu believes he will get a better deal under Mandelblit.
According to Channel 13, though Netanyahu is ready to agree to “moral turpitude,” he has not yet official informed Mandelblit, as he is not sure the attorney general is prepared for a plea deal.
Mandelblit, senior prosecutors and Netanyahu’s legal team met for hours on Monday afternoon and evening regarding the potential plea bargain.
Netanyahu himself appeared to downplay the reports that he had decided to sign a plea deal.
“Guys, there’s nothing to update you on. If there’s something to update, I’ll update,” a statement Monday evening quoted him as telling MKs in his Likud party.
Netanyahu and his family met Sunday with his lawyers to discuss a deal.
Channel 12 on Monday reported the aim of that meeting was to convince Netanyahu’s relatives to accept the decision he has already made, with those present told it was the best agreement for the ex-premier that his lawyers could achieve.
“It’s a good deal that has to be accepted,” Netanyahu’s lawyer Boaz Ben Zur was quoted as saying by Channel 13, vowing to “battle over every detail” in an amended indictment.
The network also quoted Netanyahu’s wife Sara expressing reservations over accepting a plea deal.
“The prosecution is toying with us. They’ll show everyone that Bibi is prepared to admit to crimes, and then they’ll drop the deal. Mandelblit cannot be trusted,” she reportedly said.
The report said others at the meeting called Deputy State Attorney Liat Ben-Ari, the lead prosecutor in Netanyahu’s case, a liar and said she cannot be trusted.
Earlier Monday, Netanyahu made his first public comments since reports broke that he had instructed his lawyers to press ahead with talks on a plea deal, thanking supporters who donated money as part of a crowdfunding effort to help cover the costs of his defense.
“Thank you to the multitudes of Israeli citizens for their tremendous support and wonderful love in recent days,” he tweeted. “The warmth of your hearts has touched my family and myself in an unparalleled way.”
Netanyahu tweeted the statement alongside a 2016 family photo of himself, his wife Sara and his two sons, Avner and Yair.
The fundraising campaign started by the former prime minister’s supporters had raised over NIS 2.6 million (some $835,000) by Monday evening. It is unlikely that he would be able to accept the funds as a serving lawmaker.
Netanyahu is one of Israel’s richest politicians, with Forbes reporting in 2019 he was worth NIS 50 million ($13.8 million).
Netanyahu denies all allegations against him, and says 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.