Analysis |

Netanyahu Is 'On His Knees' Seeking a Plea Deal. As Usual, Way Too Late

Netanyahu is probably guilty, but he might also be Berlusconi ■ Why Sara Netanyahu supports a deal and why her husband might not retire from political life ■ Mansour Abbas allies with an Arab MK on the left

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Benjamin Netanyahu vs Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit
Benjamin Netanyahu vs Attorney General Avichai MendelblitCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The working assumption at the State Prosecutor’s Office this weekend is that a plea bargain with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, though it will tarry, will surely come. It will come because as the days go by, the former prime minister’s legal situation is only getting worse, not stronger, despite the fairy tales being spread by his Bibi-ist messengers. The best possible outcome for which he can hope, if his trial continues, is a conviction on the two counts of fraud and breach of trust.

Less senior public figures than him have been sent to prison for similar offenses. The Supreme Court, at whose door the final decision will roll up, tends to be tough on cabinet ministers, barons and grandees. A bribery conviction, should there be one, would send him at the age of 76 or 77 to Wing 10 at Maasiyahu Prison, the maximum security facility near Ramle, for several years. There he will find the tabulation of remaining days scratched into the wall by his predecessor Ehud Olmert.

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Once again, he has reached the correct conclusion, but way too late and unfashionably so. The chronic procrastination that has characterized his moves over the past years worked to his detriment yet again. The right time to cut losses and veer out into a comfortable life of a multimillionaire, sought-after lecturer and statesman with an international reputation would have been in 2017, after case 1000 came into the world.

Since then, he has missed innumerable exit routes, waiting, like in a play by Samuel Beckett, for Godot. When his well-wishers urged him to offer the prosecution a plea bargain, he angrily kicked them down the stairs.

Now he is twitching, as Rafael Eitan once said, like “a drugged cockroach in a bottle.” Courting Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, begging for a deal he could have obtained at a much lower price.

A plea bargain requires a great deal of trust between the sides, along with total secrecy. Certainly in the case with a public mega-profile.

Take Shas Chairman Arye Dery: Word of the deal coming together between him and the prosecutor’s office was revealed only recently after months of secret talks. The same applies to Likud Knesset Member Haim Katz.

A reformulation of the indictment, certainly one as complex as the one that brings together Netanyahu’s three cases, takes many weeks. The prosecution is interested in painting the remaining charges in the most chilling hues possible. The defense is interested in the exact opposite. But with the dickering only in its initial stages and everything already out there for everyone to see (incidentally, where are the curtains in attorney Boaz Ben Zur’s home?), the toughness level is soaring sky-high. The criticism, from both sides, is getting louder and louder. Obstacles and bumps in the road that hadn’t existed in the situation of secrecy are transforming the super-sensitive process into theater of the absurd.

“Netanyahu came on his knees,” says a highly placed legal source close to the attorney general. “There’s not a symmetrical situation here. This isn’t some civil suit between two litigants trying to reach an agreement. This is the state versus a defendant. Despite the volleys of fake news Netanyahu’s human cannons have been firing for months now, the case is far from ‘collapse.’ All in all, the prosecution is feeling comfortable with the progress of the trial. In Case 4000 it needs to prove that Bibi in effect edited the Walla site and in return gave regulatory benefits to its owners. The first part of that equation has been established by Ilan Yehoshua and Nir Hefetz; the second part will become clear after the testimony from Shlomo Filber, the second state’s witness.”

Benjamin Netanyahu at his trial.Credit: Jack Guez/AP

Just wait, just wait, the Bibi-ists are promising, Filber will topple the Bezeq-Walla case once and for all. His heart is with us. Like Samson in the Bible, he will bring down the prosecution’s building on himself. This is an adorable wish, but divorced from the reality. Filber’s testimony in court will be measured with reference to his filmed testimony in the police interrogation rooms. If he changes his mind and is declared to be a hostile witness, it will be possible, with the approval of the bench of judges, to submit the original testimony. The agreement that was originally signed with him will be revoked immediately and an indictment will be filed against him. He will continue to express his enthusiasm for Netanyahu in the surveys and commentaries that he produces, and in very significant tweets.

The bottom line is simple. Netanyahu knows he is heading towards a conviction. His experienced lawyers are telling him so. Another key witness who hasn’t yet been called (because of the prosecution’s decision to begin the trial with Case 4000) is Hadas Klein. She and the evidence she will provide alone will suffice for a certain conviction in Case 1000. Moreover, in the archive of the corrupt give-and-take she had to administer, other surprises have been hiding all along, as we have already understood.

“If there is anything Mendelblit didn’t expect in advance,” says the source close to him, “it’s the prolongation of the trial. The endless tolerance the judges are showing for the defense team has led him to the conclusion that a final ruling, post-Supreme Court, is a matter of five or six years. Double what he had estimated at the outset. By then there will have been two elections, at least. Netanyahu will be permitted to run. If he succeeds in forming a government that would mean scorched earth. Destruction of the Temple. This is another consideration that is guiding him, not just ‘clearing his desk.’”

What’s good for Berlusconi

The threshold conditions the outgoing attorney general is proposing, after he was called to order over the prosecutors in the cases against Netanyahu, are making the terms of the proposed plea bargain less difficult to digest, even if it does cause heartburn. There is no comparison between the current outline (as reported in Haaretz on Thursday by Netael Bendel) and Mendelblit’s flabby and disgraceful opening position. Netanyahu will be required to admit to the heart of the indictment in Case 4000, i.e., accepting favors from Shaul Elovitch and having ordered then-Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber to give regulatory breaks to the owners of Bezeq. This is bribery, without calling it bribery. He will agree to a prison sentence, to be transmuted into seven to nine months of community service and his lawyers will not object to imposition of moral turpitude. That is, the prosecution will argue for moral turpitude in court and the defense will not challenge it.

Since the likelihood of closing the deal within nine days, before the attorney general retires, approaches zero, presumably these demands will also guide Mendelblit’s successor. They will be the basis for any future arrangement. At the beginning of the week, when it looked as though at any moment they would sign, the question of a presidential pardon arose. President Isaac Herzog, warned former prime minister Ehud Barak, could well do that and enable Netanyahu to return to politics.

To all appearances, there is no cause for concern. Herzog does not see himself as a Santa Claus of pardons. First of all, a request for a pardon has to traverse a long obstacle course that includes the police, the State Prosecutor’s Office, the attorney general, the justice minister’s signature and only at the very end the president’s signature. We can assume what the positions will be all along the way. The possibility that Herzog, who fundamentally is a decent fellow and above all a formalist, will decide the opposite is nearly unimaginable.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog.Credit: Hadas Parush

Incidentally, while the president ostensibly cannot be subjected to a petition to the High Court of Justice, a pardon decision can definitely be appealed to the Supreme Court in its capacity as the High Court of Justice. Back in the day, that same institution approved the pardon that was granted by Chaim Herzog, the current president’s father, in the case of the 1984 Bus 300 affair, when two Palestinian hijackers were captured alive by the Shin Bet and later killed. A justice at the time, Aharon Barak, wrote a sharp dissenting opinion. The very same Barak who found himself in the eye of the Netanyahu storm this past week and was subjected to an ugly onslaught, dripping with ageism, that attributed to him divorce from the reality and a desire for attention. (There may have been some confusion here with respect to the Baraks.) However, the discussion in principle could happen, and definitely will happen if the matter of a pardon for Netanyahu is ever on the agenda.

Moreover, people who know Herzog well are saying to me, Why not? After all, it is clear that a pardon will become a weapon in the hand of the pardoned, in the political comeback he is planning. Look, he will say, the president who came from the left thinks the same way I do, that I am innocent. Herzog will know what everyone knows, namely that Netanyahu wants to go back to being the prime minister in order to embark on a campaign of revenge and purges against the law enforcement and judicial institutions. The slaughter he will commit in the institutions of law, if he is elected again, will be inscribed in the name of the president who pardoned him, for eternal condemnation.

Herzog is a good person, and he seeks the good, but he is far from being an idiot, and he has no interest in committing public suicide for anyone’s sake. Netanyahu will be over 80 years old when the seven years of moral turpitude will have ended. (The countdown starts from the completion of the term of the punishment.) If he is fit and in good health, he can try his luck. Look, convicted fraudster former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is 85, has announced that he is running for election again. They’re saying he has a chance.

The man in the high castle

Likud took a mortal beating in the 2006 election, just 12 Knesset seats, and with 115 fewer votes the party would have been at 11 and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu at 12. Ehud Olmert formed a stable coalition of 70 of the Knesset’s 120 members, including the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Netanyahu concluded that for him the game was over, his race to power had ended. He planned to retire and, according to reports at the time, he was already negotiating with an American publisher about his autobiography. Some members of his dwindled caucus were stricken with a fear of abandonment. What would become of them without their shepherd?

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in December.Credit: Emil Salman

It was none other than Reuven Rivlin, a Likud lawmaker at the time and later the president, who went to Sara Netanyahu. He mustn’t leave, Rivlin pleaded. Without him we’re done for. We’ll get into a world war. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’m here. He isn’t going anywhere.”

She was right then, as she had been in the past. Today people are saying she’s in the leave camp, along with eldest son Yair. Avner, the good, honest and modest son who always kept a healthy distance from the political cauldron, is in the stay camp. At least that was the picture at the middle of the week.

People close to the family say that Sara’s thinking is backed by practical reasons. The family requires expensive maintenance. The public money stopped flowing about seven months ago. The house in Caesarea is on their dime. To Sara, the Knesset salary is minimum wage.

On the outside, the patriarch’s earning potential is unlimited – books, lectures, directorships (though not in Israel if he agrees to moral turpitude). In Eastern Europe, India, China all the doors will be open.

A friend of the family says that after they came back from summer vacation on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, which belongs to their billionaire friend Larry Ellison, they couldn’t stop talking about how good it was for them there. “There’s a life,” Netanyahu said, meaning there’s a life after politics.

The political ground beneath his feet is trembling. The storm is raging around him. Likud’s potential heirs are deep in a battle of succession while the patriarch is still alive. They know that the man is on his way out. His energies are all in the legal arena, his personal arena.

Their energies are directed inward. The governing coalition, their mortal enemy, is going through a tough stretch, and they aren’t there. People in Likud are flooding the party’s WhatsApp groups with libel – usually anonymous – against each other.

Nir Barkat isn’t waiting for Netanyahu’s resignation and he’s already organizing a blitz of fabricated polls to show that Netanyahu is superfluous,” writes a WhatsApp group known as Jerusalem Group in Likud. “Yisrael Katz continues to dance on Netanyahu’s blood. This morning he released a fictive poll from a polling institute that doesn’t exist about the election on the day after ... Go to your friend Gideon Sa’ar” – now the justice minister who split from Likud to form his New Hope party.

Someone in Lovers of Netanyahu in Likud writes: “In Likud you don’t have a future.” And Miri Regev has been phoning party branch leaders. I’m running, she’s telling them, it’ll be soon, don’t finalize with anybody else.

Former Finance Minister Yisrael Katz (R) and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Amit Shabi

Katz is already working on members of the Central Committee. Under the Likud constitution they’ll need to elect an acting Likud chief for 90 days from the moment the incumbent departs. At the end of that period a primary will be held. For the first time in a decade, the 130,000 party members will choose a party leader who isn’t Bibi.

Katz is very strong in the Central Committee and very weak in the primary. He plans to form a government in the current Knesset in the 90 days of his party chairmanship and enter the Likud primary as prime minister. In the meantime, it’s all on paper.

For a long time Likud's David Bitan, who himself went on trial Thursday, hasn’t been considered as close to Katz as before. But whether because of Bitan's famous bluntness, or because of the repugnance he and most members of the caucus feel toward Barkat, an arrogant multimillionaire in their view, Bitan has already volunteered an analysis explaining why Katz will easily form a government without dragging the country into an election, and why the rebranded high-tech guy doesn’t stand a chance.

And what about Netanyahu? What role will he have in this matter? Does the expected plea bargain mean he’ll throw the keys to Likud headquarters on the floor and not look back, or will he meddle aggressively in Likud like Donald Trump in the Republican Party?

Either way, it’s much too early to assess whether Netanyahu will want to stay in the opposition until the election of his successor or try to get his close associate Yariv Levin selected in the Central Committee as interim Likud chief.

The possible contenders, eight or nine of them, have disappeared for the moment; they’re busy building up headquarters, recruiting volunteers. The people who remain are the backbenchers, the lowly foot soldiers who for years have recited the talking points like zombies: the fabrication of cases, collapsing cases, war to the end, a resounding exoneration.

And suddenly they discover that their Dreyfus seeks a deal. In interviews they’re stuttering themselves to death: I’m against it but also in favor. I understand him but I don’t agree. I would go all the way to the end, but in the end it’s his personal business. Strangely, until just a moment ago, it was the business of the whole right-wing camp, the darling of its heart, the bedrock of its existence.

Among them are some who apparently fear losing their sole significance in the public arena – poisoning on behalf of the patron. This week, at the Knesset podium, Likud’s Galit Distal Atbaryan screamed herself hoarse with pathetic cries that would have impressed legendary stage actress Hanna Rovina.

“We’re a millimeter from setting fire to this Earth! We’re on the edge of a volcano! I’m standing in the lava and sounding a warning!” (She spared the bored chamber one of her affected outbursts of tears.)

Maybe she really does see a mountain’s shadow as a volcano. And maybe when she has nothing but venom and decibels, all that remains are empty utterances connected to reality the way her literary career is connected to the two Sapir Prizes she says she won.

Mansour Abbas’ new friend

On the eve of the 2021 election, Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz sought somebody good from the Arab community for his slate’s No. 4 slot to come one spot in front of Esawi Freige, with whom Horowitz doesn’t get along. Businessman Yossi Kutchik, a coalition-talks negotiator for the party, suggested Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, a resident of Nof Hagalil in the Galilee who has an impressive record as an executive and a social activist.

Horowitz, who didn’t know her, said why not: an Arab and a woman. He visited her at home, where a lavish table was awaiting. The rest can be seen on the Meretz Knesset roster. In the election, Meretz surprised everyone and plucked six Knesset seats. Freige, who still made it into parliament, has given up his Knesset seat to be regional cooperation minister.

Meretz candidates in Nazareth, from left: Tamar Zandberg, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, Horowitz and Esawi Freige.Credit: Amir Levi

This week Zoabi badly irked her party chairman and the diligent party whip, Michal Rozin. She concealed from them her intention to vote against the bill on drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the military, the bill proposed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The legislation failed to pass by one vote. The ultra-Orthodox shrieked with joy.

The heads of the coalition parties fell upon Horowitz: What’s happening with you people? They demanded an explanation. They were answered with a helpless shrug.

In Meretz, Zoabi has long been considered out of touch. She’s not very communicative. After the vote she embarked on a peculiar victory lap in the media, squeezing the utmost out of her 15 minutes of questionable fame.

She said she wanted to lodge a protest because the coalition had backed a right-winger’s version of the bill that would prevent Palestinians who are married to Israelis from gaining residency in Israel. She also said she wanted to protest the planting of trees at a Bedouin area in the south that was suspended last week and that even the Bedouin have stopped protesting against. A pretty limp explanation.

The coalition heads left the Knesset hall humiliated as scornful whistles from the opposition benches rained down on them. Bennett, Lapid and Gantz sat in Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy’s office to consult. They decided to bring the bill back to the full chamber as soon as next week.

The one in the coalition who tried to work things out with Zoabi was United Arab List chief Mansour Abbas. We’ll bring her over to us, he proposed to some of his partners. “It will be nice. We’ll have a religious woman” – MK Iman Khatib-Yasin – “and a secular woman. They’ll work together. Meretz won’t manage to control her; we know how to manage that.”

A complex idea, an undoubtedly original complication. Whether or not it happens, Abbas is on it. On Wednesday the special parliamentary committee on Arab society he heads held a meeting at the Knesset. One of the coalition heads who heard about the initiative came in to talk to him. He found in his chair a woman who had replaced him at his request: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi.

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