By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
In the past few days, Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorneys have been in discussion with Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, concerning a plea deal in Netanyahu’s corruption case. Over the past several months, this trial has taken place in the district court in Jerusalem.
The plea deal has the potential to end the trial without any jail time for Netanyahu. He would potentially face lesser charges and become ineligible to run for public office for seven years. In essence, the lack of eligibility would end Netanyahu’s political career, since he is already 72 years old.
Rumors that the parties were in discussions began last week and were confirmed not long after sending the political arena in Israel into a turmoil. According to the New York Times, the Attorney General is willing to amend the indictment to eliminate the bribery charge and only seeks a guilty plea from Netanyahu on two lesser charges. Netanyahu will also need to do some community service.
In addition, the verdict would include an element that can be translated as a disgrace or moral turpitude. In the Israeli legal system, such a finding would bar the defendant from seeking elected office for seven years.
On social media, Netanyahu has posted that he will only agree to a deal that will not include disgrace. However, media reports suggest that the Attorney General will not agree to a deal without this element attached to the verdict.
The Political Reaction to Netanyahu’s Plea Deal
The political arena in Israel has been thrown into turmoil since the first media reports came out about these negotiations. Among both Netanyahu’s supporters and his detractors, nobody likes the idea of this deal.
According to the Times of Israel, “Right-wing Israelis are against a plea deal because they believe Netanyahu is innocent, and the court will eventually throw out his cases. On the left, people say a plea deal would send the wrong message and that Netanyahu should go to jail.”
The Times of Israel also reported that three recent surveys conducted in Israel show that most Israelis object to the plea deal. Among his supporters, there is a demand to push until the end to prove his innocence, and they even started a public funding campaign to pay for the legal fees.
On the left, which sees Netanyahu as their nemesis, the idea of him not serving jail time is too much to bear, even though a plea deal will end his political career. What is most interesting is that on the left, any hint of approval of a deal is met with complete degradation.
This way of thinking was made clear when former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak came out with his support of Netanyahu’s plea deal. Barak was the luminary of the left in Israel, pushing for a progressive agenda from the bench and changing the constitutional framework of Israel in an unparalleled way. But as soon as Barak endorsed Netanyahu’s plea deal, he was attacked as a collaborator.
According to the Times of Israel, Barak stated, “I won’t deny that when I reached out to Mandelblit, Benjamin Netanyahu’s contribution to the country was always on my mind. He was one of the greatest defenders of the Israeli justice system, until his trial.”
What Is Next for Netanyahu?
If this plea deal goes through, Netanyahu will stand down from his position as leader of the Likud party. There will be a battle to replace him, and that battle will most likely bring down the current government.
As I wrote in a previous article, the current Israeli government is a strange coalition of left and right that has only one thing in common: they are anti-Netanyahu. When he is gone, many of the right-wing parties in the coalition will have a hard time explaining to their voters why they are still in a government with the left.
In the Likud, the voices calling for an internal election have already begun, and there are many contenders who want to replace Netanyahu. Several names came out as potential nominees; the leading candidate is Nir Barkat.
Barkat is a centrist member of the Likud and a former mayor of Jerusalem. He is famous for not antagonizing anyone and never identifying as overly ideological. Barkat has also been signaling that he has wanted to replace Netanyahu for years. Now, it seems Barkat finally will get his chance.
The developments in Netanyahu’s trial have the potential to be a watershed moment in Israeli politics and in the Middle East. Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics since the 1990s and he was clearly a leader who replaced the generation of Israel’s founding fathers who had been in leadership positions from the founding of Israel in 1948 until the early 2000s.
Now that Netanyahu might step down, a new generation of leaders will come to the forefront. These leaders have grown up in a post-1967 Israel; they will bring with them a new approach to Israel’s identity and answers to Israel’s complex questions about religion and state.
In addition, there is the Palestinian Authority to consider and who will be the successor to Mahmoud Abbas, the last Palestinian leader from the 1948 generation. In the future, that leader may work toward a Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. One thing is clear: it never gets boring in the Middle East.