Prosecutors are reportedly fuming over reports that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been holding secret talks with the attorney general over a plea deal in his corruption trial, which is now said to be just awaiting Netanyahu’s final approval.
Meanwhile, political forces believe a plea deal that removes Netanyahu from the political sphere could cause the speedy collapse of the current, ideologically splintered governing coalition.
Netanyahu, the opposition leader, is on trial in three separate graft cases, after being indicted in 2019 for fraud, breach of trust and bribery. News broke earlier this week that the former prime minister was conducting secret negotiations with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit over a potential plea deal.
While initial reports indicated that the negotiations had hit a dead end, TV networks reported on Thursday that the two sides are very close to signing a deal, although one major sticking point remains.
According to Channel 13 news, prosecutors will only agree to a deal that includes an admission of moral turpitude and community service for Netanyahu. If his actions are found to have carried moral turpitude, a guilty plea would bar Netanyahu from public service for seven years, likely ending the 72-year-old’s political career for good.
The secret talks were reportedly initiated by Netanyahu’s attorney Boaz Ben Zur, and state prosecutors made clear that there would be no compromise on the conviction of moral turpitude.
Channel 13 indicated Thursday night that the state prosecution’s insistence on the moral turpitude designation was the key sticking point preventing a deal.
According to a Thursday night report on Channel 12, however, the side were at odds only over the question of when Netanyahu would resign from the Knesset, and therefore who would have the authority to determine if the charges amount to moral turpitude.
If he resigns before a final verdict, it would fall to the Supreme Court judge who heads the Central Elections Committee to make a decision before the next election to the Knesset. If, however, Netanyahu remains in office until a verdict is in place — Mandelblit’s purported preference — then the judges will make the ultimate decision on whether his actions amount to moral turpitude. It was not immediately clear why this was a significant issue, however, since the same TV report indicated that in both scenarios, the crimes would likely be designated as constituting moral turpitude.
Netanyahu — who has long publicly proclaimed that his innocence would be proven in court, and previously vowed not to accept any plea deal — is reportedly consulting with aides about moving forward with a deal. Reports have indicated that Mandelblit may be eager to wrap things up before his term ends at the end of the month.
Channel 12 news noted that it is possible Netanyahu is not really interested in a plea deal at all, and may simply be trying to depict the cases publicly as weak, pointing to the prosecution’s readiness to compromise.
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.
Top state prosecution officials were unaware of the negotiations for a plea deal with Netanyahu until Wednesday, Channel 13 reported. According to the TV network, Mandelblit held the talks secretly and only notified top figures tied to the case on Wednesday. Officials were outraged when they found out, the report said.
Netanyahu faces charges in three separate graft cases: fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000.
In Case 4000, the most serious against the former premier, 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.
In Case 1000, he 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.
In Case 2000, he is accused of attempting to make a deal with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes for softer coverage of him in exchange for legislation to curb the reach of rival daily Israel Hayom.
According to the TV networks, the details of the plea agreement that have already been agreed to would include dropping the bribery charge in Case 4000, as well as the entire Case 2000, and seeing Netanyahu admit to fraud and breach of trust in both 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.
Some officials in the prosecution do not want to close Case 2000 against the premier, Channel 13 reported.
Either way, analysts have noted, the Supreme Court justices are not a rubber stamp for plea deals, and would have to sign off on the details of the agreement before it can be finalized — and could potentially reject it.
Meanwhile, political analysts and insiders have already been assessing the potential fallout of such a deal. If Netanyahu’s political career is effectively over, many observers believe it would spell the end of the current government coalition.
With Netanyahu out as head of Likud, the coalition’s right-wing parties — which refused to sit together with Likud only as long as Netanyahu headed it — are likely to jump ship and easily form a right-wing government.
Channel 12 noted that it is possible Netanyahu could stay on as chairman of Likud even if he is no longer a member of Knesset — similar to Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who recently signed his own plea deal on tax offenses.
But sources in Likud have said privately that they would oppose Netanyahu attempting to stay on as leader of the party after he resigns. And many in the party are now ramping up the quiet and not-so quiet preparations for the future of the party in the post-Netanyahu era.