Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has said countless times over the last two years, with great vehemence, that the criminal cases against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must be decided in court. After Netanyahu accused him and the entire law enforcement system of fabricating the cases and thereby staging a coup, only a court verdict, with no plea bargains, can make the truth clear for all to see, he argued.
Netanyahu also promised his closest associates that he’d see the legal process through to the bitter end, and if the worst of all happened, he’d write a book while in jail.
But despite the grandiose statements on both sides, five secret meetings have taken place over the last few months at which a plea bargain was discussed. The talks began at the request of Netanyahu’s lawyer, Boaz Ben Zur, who thought his client must explore this option.
Ben Zur is sober enough to realize that loudly proclaiming the cases will collapse doesn’t guarantee that will actually happen. He has explained the legal situation to his client, including several gloomy possible scenarios. He also realized that time is running out, as such a deal would likely be possible only before Mendelblit’s term ends at the start of next month.
Only four people in the Justice Ministry knew about the talks and attended the meetings – Mendelblit; State Prosecutor Amit Aisman; Liat Ben Ari, the lead prosecutor on the case; and Hagai Harush, the deputy attorney general for criminal affairs. The prosecutors who are appearing in court three days a week didn’t know these talks were taking place.
Some of Netanyahu’s closest associates were also kept in the dark, and until journalist Ben Caspit broke the news of the secret talks on Wednesday, they insisted Netanyahu was planning his return to the Prime Minister’s Office and didn’t intend to wave a white flag. “He won’t let them destroy him” with a finding of moral turpitude, one politician close to him said last week.
Mendelblit, for his part, insisted he wasn’t actually negotiating with Ben Zur; these were merely preliminary talks to see whether negotiations were possible. But in reality, the possible outlines of a deal became clear during these talks.
The sides easily agreed that Netanyahu would be convicted of fraud and breach of trust in two of the three cases, but the bribery charge as well as the third case would be dropped. The main obstacle was over the sentence.
The Justice Ministry insisted that the court will rule the crimes involved moral turpitude and impose a prison sentence, to be served through community service. But Netanyahu, at least as of this writing, couldn’t swallow those terms, which would not only stigmatize him, but also bar him from politics by law for the next seven years. Only if he changes his mind could a deal be sealed.
On Thursday, Netanyahu had a private conversation with Shas leader Arye Dery in the Knesset. Afterward, he sent a clear message to other people he spoke with – only a plea bargain like the one Dery signed, an extremely lenient one that enabled him to remain in politics, would be acceptable. It’s impossible to know whether this is mere wishful thinking or a firm position. But Justice Ministry sources familiar with the talks confirmed that Netanyahu hasn’t given a green light to its proposed terms.
If he gives one next week – and as noted, he’s still far from doing so – a no less difficult battle will begin over the details of the amended indictment, and neither side will give in easily. The prosecution will want to leave the indictment largely unchanged. Netanyahu’s attorneys will seek to remove the most incriminating details, such as the meeting at which he asked then-Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber to help Bezeq, the number of boxes of cigars and bottles of champagne Netanyahu and his wife received from billionaires Arnon Milchan and James Packer and the extent of Netanyahu’s conflict of interests.
If Netanyahu agrees to the moral turpitude finding and his exit from the political stage, the prosecution will drop Case 2000, which stemmed from his negotiations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes over a deal in which the paper would slant its coverage of him in exchange for Netanyahu taking steps to suppress its main rival, Israel Hayom. This is inevitable, especially since Mendelblit, with Aisman’s backing, chose to go to court with a lenient version of the case that doesn’t necessarily match the facts. Though the evidence indicated negotiations over a bribe, Netanyahu was charged only with breach of trust.
Even if this deal is signed, the case against Mozes wouldn’t be closed. But Mozes’ lawyers have been holding their own talks with the prosecution in recent weeks. One of the latest proposals for a deal that they have discussed would require Mozes to admit to offering a bribe to Netanyahu but soften the charge in other ways – for instance, by saying he never intended to follow through. He would then be sentenced to nine months of community service.
Effectively, all the defendants except Shaul and Iris Elovitch are currently looking to cut their losses. The Elovitches, Bezeq’s former owners, are charged with bribing Netanyahu through slanted coverage at the Walla internet news site to obtain regulatory relief for Bezeq.
It’s hard to predict whether a deal with Netanyahu will be signed in the next two weeks. Both sides sounded pessimistic about the chances on Thursday, but that doesn’t prevent either side from reversing course.
Mendelblit, who swore to obtain a judicial verdict in Netanyahu’s cases, is now telling his subordinates that it would be an enormous achievement to get the man who has called himself a second Dreyfus to admit to committing crimes and leave politics. Netanyahu, who promised to demolish the cases so thoroughly that nothing was left but dust, is suddenly displaying a pragmatic flexibility that, for the first time in his life, would make him a criminal.
But even though both protagonists are sporting new colors, they are still far from the finish line. And if a deal isn’t finalized, the next few weeks are expected to produce several dramatic moments in the Jerusalem District Court. Filber, who turned state’s evidence, will start testifying soon. And after him will come perhaps the deadliest witness of all – Milchan’s right-hand woman, Hadas Klein, who will shed light on the lavish gifts provided by Milchan and Packer.
The trial, which began desultorily, has picked up the pace in recent months. So even if a plea bargain isn’t signed, the day is not far off when we will know whether Netanyahu is guilty or innocent.