Netanyahu’s plea deal talks a final attempt to avoid justice
In public, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still sticks to one of his hollow catchphrases regarding his indictment on three counts of corruption, insisting: “There won’t be anything because there is nothing.” This is despite his trial hearing some disturbing witness accounts of how the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history increasingly came to handle the country’s affairs chiefly for the benefit of himself and his family’s unquenched thirst for power and wealth.
Mounting evidence in court paints a picture of the Netanyahus spending much of their time leaning on media outlets and offering them benefits, at the expense of the country, in exchange for favorable coverage and the suppression of any criticisms of their clan. It remains to be seen whether the presiding judges will deem Netanyahu’s behavior corrupt on these counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Nevertheless, the sudden decision by Netanyahu’s lawyers, one assumes with his consent, to offer Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit a plea bargain suggests that their client is no longer convinced that he will be acquitted. Was he ever?
Call me naive, but for someone who for six years dragged the country through the mud of a police investigation while denying any wrongdoing, protesting vehemently that there was not a single blot on his character and inciting against anyone who dared question his version of events, it might be expected that Netanyahu would fight to prove his innocence rather than attempt to secure a plea bargain.
Alas, in the face of mounting evidence — and this even before some of the prosecution’s heavyweight witnesses have taken the stand — Netanyahu and his legal team have got cold feet and are looking for a deal that will spare him the ignominy of a jail term. Ironically, the matter has become pressing because of the very short time before Mandelblit’s term of office ends. This is the same Mandelblit who has suffered from constant and vicious disparagement from Netanyahu and his minions. However, the former prime minister knows that it was Mandelblit’s weakness and hesitancy that resulted in unreasonable delays to his trial and let Netanyahu off the hook of much more serious allegations. Hence, this attorney general might be their best bet for sparing him time behind bars.
However, because both sides have dragged their feet for so long and time may have run out to finalize any plea bargain — not to mention the prospect of public outrage should one be allowed — this escape route might remain blocked. It might also be because Mandelblit has, at last, decided to flex some of his legal muscle. One of the stumbling blocks remains the attorney general’s insistence, rightly so, that any such deal include an admission of wrongdoing and accepts a finding of moral turpitude, something that the defendant and his lawyers have so far refused to agree to. Such a finding would effectively bar Netanyahu from politics for the next seven years and, for all intents and purposes, end his political career.
There is an argument that, for the greater public good, a plea bargain would be a desirable conclusion to the most divisive court case in the country’s history. There is also the high cost of prolonging a judicial process that might take years to reach a conclusion. However, I cannot think of a more morally bankrupt and misguided argument. First, justice by way of a fair and transparent process is never cheap and, considering what is at stake here, it must be reached in court, not through some dodgy deal struck behind closed doors that will leave everyone else in the dark about why and how it was reached. After all, the legal process that the former prime minister faces should show no favoritism and be identical in every way to that which any other citizen would have to experience in the same circumstances.
Unfortunately, throughout the last six years, Netanyahu has enjoyed preferential treatment every step of the way. Moreover, the defendant in this most serious of corruption trials has been arguing all along that he was stitched up, or framed, for political reasons. A plea bargain would not bring this sad Israeli saga to a conclusive end and would only encourage Netanyahu and his supporters to magnify the myth of him being the victim of a political-judicial conspiracy to bring him down to the detriment of the country’s national interest.
Part of this false victimhood claim would be that Netanyahu admitted wrongdoing because he faced gigantic forces that would have condemned him to years in jail despite his innocence. But, no, Netanyahu’s apparent readiness to accept a plea bargain is in fact a clear admission of guilt and, as such, should bar him from politics automatically.
Justice must be reached in court, not through some dodgy deal struck behind closed doors.
Moreover, if Netanyahu genuinely cared about the fortunes of his Likud party and right-wing rule in Israel, all he needs to do is resign his leadership. He is staying in politics for one reason and one reason alone: To avoid justice and save himself from jail. For now, and ironically, Netanyahu is the glue that keeps the current less-than-coherent Israeli government coalition united, as it was formed not only to rid the country of a corrupt leader, but also the toxicity of his reign.
The longer this government survives, the more it normalizes the fact that Israel can be governed without him and dispels the illusion that Netanyahu and his pandering scaremongers like to promote that he is the only one capable of ensuring the country’s security and prosperity. If he were to leave politics with immediate effect, the pressure on right-wing elements in the present government, especially Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, to join Likud, the largest party in the Knesset, in a coalition government that is more in line with their ideology would be difficult to resist.
If there was any doubt about what motivates Netanyahu and how it affects Israel’s politics and society, his quest for a plea bargain has left no one doubting that it is no more than a ploy to flee from justice at any cost, even if it means leaving scorched earth behind him.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg