It’s the sort of story that makes you wonder about who is doing the leaking and why. When the first reports of a possible plea bargain deal ending the trial of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were circulated, it was hard to know who was seeking to benefit from the news about such an agreement becoming known.
The leaks have raised the stakes in their negotiations between Netanyahu and the office of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. But those two antagonists aren’t the only ones with skin in the game. The government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid will also have a lot riding on any deal that could result in Netanyahu’s resignation from the Knesset and replacement as head of the Likud Party’s parliamentary faction. And that’s not to mention the former prime minister’s many would-be successors, who have been waiting for the beginning of the post-Netanyahu era to claim the leadership of Likud.
Yet the questions observers should be asking about this go beyond whether Israel’s longest serving prime minister will agree—as the agreement reportedly calls for him to do—to admit to guilt to even the least of the four corruption counts on which he was indicted or to “moral turpitude,” let alone to ending (even temporarily) his position as the unquestioned leader of the country’s largest political party.
At the heart of this dispute is not just the allegation that Netanyahu is corrupt. Rather, it is whether his foes within a justice system that he and his party repeatedly challenged for their lack of accountability and political bias will succeed in asserting their supremacy over the Knesset and the office of the prime minister and the voters who elected them.
The duel between Netanyahu and Mandelblit—a former supporter who took on the role of Netanyahu’s personal “Inspector Javert” once ensconced in the AG’s office—has been depicted by Israel’s political and media establishment as one about democracy and the rule of law. Yet you don’t have to like Netanyahu or think of him as a model of ethical probity—or that he deserved to remain in office indefinitely despite having alienated so many colleagues and allies—to understand that his prosecution was actually the opposite of an effort to uphold the rule of law. Indeed, by seeking to force a sitting prime minister out of office via a quartet of obviously flimsy charges, the state prosecutor’s office was intervening in the country’s politics in a way that was clearly illegitimate.
It was that factor that provided some justification for Netanyahu continuing in office once he was indicted. The same applies to his decision to contest four inconclusive elections over a two-year period long past the point when it was obvious that doing so would merely prolong a stalemate that could only end with either his departure or a splitting of the right-wing/religious majority that had governed the country.
By refusing to resign, Netanyahu essentially forced some of his former allies to choose between a fifth election and continued political chaos, and a coalition with their opponents in order to put the country out of its misery. Bennett chose the latter, and he will likely never be forgiven by his voters or anyone else on the right. But the creation of the unlikely government comprised of the left, the right, the center and one Arab Islamist party was more than anything the result of Netanyahu’s stubborn determination to never give in to the prosecutors and those cheering them on in Israel’s leftist media.
Netanyahu’s ironclad grip on the loyalty of Likud voters is often depicted as a form of proto-authoritarian and anti-democratic tribalism. Much like the American mainstream liberal media’s sneering contempt for those who voted for former President Donald Trump and Republicans, coverage of Netanyahu voters in most of the Israel press reflects the same belief that those who vote for the right are “deplorables.” Even though there has been a good case to be made that, despite Netanyahu’s long record of success, Likud needed to move on from him, the devotion to its leader is about more than a personality cult.
His adherents, as well as many of those who voted for parties that were aligned with Likud, believe that the same people who despise them were unfairly targeting Netanyahu. They understand that if the legal establishment that he challenged is allowed to succeed in bringing him down after his political opponents couldn’t do it at the ballot box, then that—and not Netanyahu’s policies or his bitter criticism of the courts—is the real danger to democracy.
That’s why the news that he might possibly agree to a plea bargain was discouraging as well as infuriating to his supporters. Indeed, it drove many of them to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to pay Netanyahu’s legal costs to continue the fight in court, though it appears that he cannot legally accept it.
You might think that the same people on the right who have been howling about some of the decisions made by the Bennett-Lapid coalition, especially those that show the clout that Mansour Abbas’ Ra’am Party has acquired as a result of its historic decision to join an Israeli government, would understand that Netanyahu waving the white flag will hasten its demise. Assuming that any plea bargain will involve electing a new head of Likud, once that happens, there will be no justification for any of the right-wing parties serving in the coalition to remain in it. At the very least, it would ensure that Lapid will never succeed Bennett, as he is scheduled to do in 2023.
Though there are good reasons for Israelis to want to end this experiment in having a government divided against itself on every conceivable issue, there are better ones to hope that this dispute doesn’t end in this manner.
A week after the rumors about the plea bargain negotiations were first aired in a report in the Maariv newspaper, a deal between Netanyahu and Mandelblit has still not been signed and may not happen after all. While it was believed that Mandelblit was pushing for a resolution to a trial that first began in May 2020 and could well drag on well into the decade, before his term in office ended at the end of the month, the deal that was reportedly hammered out by the lawyers has provisions that are difficult for both sides to swallow.
Still, this is about more than Netanyahu’s pride or his unwillingness to admit guilt or the left being satisfied with his ouster instead of the spectacle of his imprisonment. The case against him is weak, but Israel’s system of having judges decide the outcome of trials rather than juries means that he may suspect that the system is geared to convict him of something, no matter how flimsy or politically motivated the charges may be. So it’s not unreasonable that his legal team is considering cutting their losses. He may also realize that despite his skill in tormenting Bennett from the opposition benches, at this point the chances of him winning back the prime ministership are not as good as he likes to pretend they are.
Yet having put the country through an ordeal that has lasted several years, giving up now would grant an undeserved victory to the legal establishment that he rightly understands had no right to attack him in this fashion.
Innocent people often accept plea bargains to avoid being bankrupted by unscrupulous prosecutors or to avoid the possibility of a wrongful conviction that will result in a worse outcome for them and their families. While one can understand Netanyahu wanting to move on if he thinks it’s in his personal interests, innocent prime ministers should not accept plea bargains under these circumstances. Having come this far, it would not be to his credit to simply slink away from this battle.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @Jonathans_Tobin.
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