Will a potential Netanyahu plea deal bring down the government that ousted him?

Finance Minister Liberman says a Netanyahu exit would be ‘the big bang’ of Israeli politics, while coalition’s ex-Likud MK Haskel says ‘if Netanyahu goes, anything is possible’

Amy Spiro

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

From right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman attend the first cabinet meeting, at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
From right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman attend the first cabinet meeting, at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As reports continue to swirl about a plea deal in the corruption trial of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, political insiders are already gearing up for the possibility of an imminent political future without the former prime minister.

Depending on the terms of the deal that may be signed this week, Netanyahu is expected to be compelled to leave politics for up to seven years, a development that may well spell the end of the 72-year-old’s career in public office.

Such a move would leave a vacuum not just within his own Likud party, but possibly on the national level as well, as the ideologically splintered eight-party coalition, united to a large degree by antipathy to Netanyahu, would suddenly find itself on even shakier ground.

New Hope’s Sharren Haskel, a current coalition MK who was once a Likud member, said Saturday, “If Netanyahu goes, everything is possible.

“There are hard-working, ideological people in Likud,” she noted, adding that before the election it had been said that “if anyone had replaced Netanyahu [as leader] in Likud, it was almost certain that [the Likud party] would have been able to form a government.”

Now, she said, “there are a million and one scenarios that could play out, depending on if there is a primary [race for the leadership of Likud] and who wins… Once we know the scenarios, we will know how to deal with them.”

New Hope MK Sharren Haskel speaks during a vote on a medical marijuana reform bill, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The disparate parties that constitute the current government — from the Islamist Ra’am party to the left-wing Meretz and right-wing Yamina — were largely seen as sharing the overarching goal of ousting Netanyahu from office as he underwent a prolonged corruption investigation and trial. But with Netanyahu no longer in the picture, the coalition’s right-wing parties could easily form a more ideologically aligned government with Likud’s 30 Knesset seats.

Yisrael Beytenu’s Eli Avidar, currently a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, suggested that a new national election was only a matter of time.

“Pay attention to trends, people need to be woken up because we are on the way to elections,” Avidar told a group of activists on Saturday. The minister said that if Prime Minister Naftali Bennett does not vote to approve an inquiry into the so-called “submarine affair” linked to Netanyahu, it’s a sign the government is on shaky ground.

“If Bennett prevents the approval of a state commission of inquiry into the submarines, the meaning is clear: Bennett is about to stab the so-called ‘change camp’ in the back,” said Avidar, referring to the label applied to the parties that united to oust Netanyahu.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced Friday that a long-promised vote on establishing an official government investigation into the submarine scandal, a murky defense deal with Germany that has already led to several indictments of Netanyahu associates — but spared the former prime minister — would be held on Sunday. But reports over the weekend indicated that it is not likely to come to a vote this week after all, either due to the looming potential plea deal or a potential deal with Germany to purchase submarines.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Saturday that he did not believe Netanyahu would agree to leave politics without a fight, but said he thought the government would continue to function — for now.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting at the Knesset on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Netanyahu is not giving up on his rosy dream of returning to power,” Liberman said. He said he had no doubt that Netanyahu was “working on formulations so that there will be a small loophole that will allow him to return to the election campaign in the upcoming elections.”

Liberman added that even if Netanyahu were to step down as part of a plea deal, he believed that the former prime minister would immediately begin pressuring President Isaac Herzog to pardon him.

Nevertheless, Liberman admitted that a potential Netanyahu exit from political life “is the big bang of the Israeli political map.” Still he added, the Likud primary process will take several months, during which the government will continue to function.

Meanwhile, Likud officials are positioning themselves more publicly now for a run at the party’s leadership following Netanyahu’s exit.

Israel Katz, a Likud former minister, said Saturday that Netanyahu leaving politics “would be a meaningful moment, dramatic and even sad.” But he said he would run for leadership of the party if Netanyahu were out of the picture, promising “a democratic process to provide a clear alternative” to the current government.

Katz suggested that the Bennett-Lapid coalition was “just waiting for someone to rescue them from this maze.”

Likud MK Israel Katz speaks during a Conference of Heads of Local Authorities, in Ramat Negev, southern Israel, July 22, 2021. (Flash90)

Fellow former Likud minister Amir Ohana has acknowledged that he’s a possible candidate for a party leadership race, saying, “I’d have to see who the other candidates are.”

And Likud MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat has long promised he’d run for the leadership of the party, leading Netanyahu loyalists to push for a so-called “Barkat Law” that would limit campaign self-financing. The legislation is seen as directly aimed at Barkat, a tech billionaire.

Netanyahu’s political future appears poised to hinge on the designation or lack of designation of his actions as entailing “moral turpitude” — which would legally bar him from public service for seven years. The inclusion of moral turpitude in his potential plea deal has reportedly been the major sticking point in negotiations between Netanyahu and the attorney general.

According to a Channel 13 report on Saturday, a compromise may have been found whereby the sides would agree that it is the trial judges at the Jerusalem District Court who will rule on whether the former Israeli leader’s actions deserve such a designation.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the report said, reasons that it is virtually certain that the judges would impose the “moral turpitude” designation if Netanyahu, as agreed in the reported framework for a plea deal, admits to offenses of fraud and breach of trust.

Channel 12 reported Saturday that sources close to Netanyahu are signaling he backs the deal, as do his attorneys. It also said that some of Netanyahu’s family members are not yet on board, though it did not provide further details.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (center) arrives for a court hearing in his trial, on November 16, 2021, in Jerusalem. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The network noted that the deal now on the table had been discussed on several occasions over the past two years, but that Netanyahu had previously refused to consider any proposal that involved moral turpitude.

Netanyahu — who has long publicly proclaimed that his innocence would be proven in court — 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.

According to Channel 13, Netanyahu started considering a plea deal after receiving a legal assessment that key state 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.

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. He 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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