Netanyahu Associates Examine if He Could Remain Likud Leader Under Plea Deal

The examination was pursued from a legal rather than political standpoint amid negotiations on a possible plea agreement that would end Netanyahu's corruption trial

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
Netanyahu, right, with his lawyers at his trial in Jerusalem District Court in November.
Netanyahu, right, with his lawyers at his trial in Jerusalem District Court in November.Credit: Emil Salman
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Individuals acting on behalf of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have looked into whether his party would permit him to remain as chairman even if he signs a plea deal that includes a moral turpitude.

The examination was pursued from a legal rather than political standpoint as part of his decision on a possible plea agreement. Netanyahu is currently on trial in Jerusalem District Court on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases involving alleged corruption.

The possibility of a plea agreement has taken on added urgency because Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who decided to indict Netanyahu, is wrapping up his term at the end of this month.

In pursuing the matter with Likud party officials, Netanyahu’s representatives were initially referred to several provisions in the party’s constitution dealing with a party member convicted of a crime in which there is moral turpitude. Section 20 of the party’s constitution bars anyone sentenced to more than three months in prison from running for office in the party. And Section 21 permits the party to expel any member convicted of a crime that includes moral turpitude.

Although the two sections may indicate that Netanyahu would not be able to stay on as party chairman, his representatives were told that the matter is not entirely clear and would be expected in any event to be decided by the party’s tribunal, which for many years has been headed by retired Judge Michael Kleiner.

In fact, Section 20 gives the party’s election committee and tribunal authority to rule that “there is no moral turpitude associated with the offense, under the circumstances, of which [an individual] was convicted.” That means that the Likud tribunal can rule that there was no moral turpitude involved in offenses for which Netanyahu might be convicted in a plea agreement, regardless of what the Jerusalem District Court decides.

In the contacts between Likud officials and Netanyahu’s associates, the case of the former mayor of Upper Nazareth (the town now known as Nof Hagalil) was raised as an example. Mayor Shimon Gapso was convicted in 2016 of bribery with a finding of moral turpitude. As a result, a complaint was filed with the Likud tribunal seeking to revoke his party membership.

Officials involved with the legal issue at the time said Gapso should not be found to have committed acts of moral turpitude despite the court’s determination. The issue never reached the Likud tribunal for a decision however, because Gapso decided not to challenge the revocation of his party membership. But the case was raised as a case in which the tribunal could have made a different decision than the court on the issue.

In the opinion of everyone involved in the current consultations, if Netanyahu signs a plea agreement and resigns from the Knesset, he would not be required immediately to resign the chairmanship of the party because the legal proceedings involved in removing him could take weeks or months.

Several senior Likud officials said they felt certain that under such circumstances, the former prime minister would not be quick to resign his leadership of the party. They predicted that he would try to delay any such development as long as he could, heading off early elections for a new party leader and continuing to serve as the party’s “supreme leader.”

A senior Likud official also raised the example of Avi Gabbay, who headed a party even though he was not a Knesset member. Gabbay was elected Labor Party chairman (which at the time was part of the Zionist Union), but was not a Knesset member. The Zionist Union was the largest opposition faction in the Knesset at the time, but he was not the leader of the Knesset opposition because he was not a member of parliament.

Even if Netanyahu surmounts his legal hurdles, he still faces a complex political hurdle. The prospect that the chairman of the Likud secretariat, Haim Katz, and the chairman of the Likud central committee, Yisrael Katz, would back Netanyahu for the leadership are slim.

It is thought that at least Haim Katz would be determined to hold a quick election as party leader if Netanyahu signs a plea agreement.

Netanyahu declined to comment for this report.

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