Opinion |

Netanyahu Is Heading for a Plea Deal

In his view, he will always be Dreyfus on steroids – but the costs of fighting the indictments are just too high, and a bargain with the law just too good to pass up

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Netanyahu looks on during his meeting with Mike Pompeo on December 4, 2019 in Lisbon.
Netanyahu looks on during his meeting with Mike Pompeo on December 4, 2019 in Lisbon. Credit: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / POOL / AFP

Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to a plea deal. This is why he so badly needs “a few months” to negotiate from the position of prime minister. It is the only liquid asset he has to sell, his only security, his lifesaver.

He knows it. He wants it. He is aware of the fact he has no other choice. His family and those around him have realized that there is no other reasonable alternative. The reasons for his decision to stay in his current role as long as possible are not political. They certainly aren’t ethical or moral. They are legal, and mainly financial.

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The stage of denial and defiance has ended. His incessant talk of “there won’t be anything because there was nothing” are over, as are his arrogant boasts of “wait and see.” We waited, we saw.

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Three serious indictments were filed against Netanyahu. Moreover, the spillover from the submarine affair known as Case 3000 has not reached its full potential, and the damage could be great. From the moment Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced his decision to file indictments, the game stopped being a political and media game, and became a race for a bargain with the law.

Netanyahu will likely remain the eternal victim in his own view and will continue acting that way. He is Alfred Dreyfus on steroids. He will keep believing that a historical crime was perpetrated, an attempted coup against a prime minister, a crass overthrow of government, a putsch waged by the treacherous leftist elites, the corrupt state prosecutor, the media, the president, dubious state witnesses, the police commissioner, the attorney general, former Mossad and Shin Bet leaders, Barack Obama, George Soros, etc., etc., against him.

None of this changes the fact that he faces a plea deal. He has no other option. Perhaps it won’t work — but no doubt he will strive for one.

The first inkling of his fragile condition came, not from the growing list of the Likud local leaders and major members switching their support to rival Gideon Sa’ar, but rather from the international arena, which he seemed to rule for years. U.S. President Trump is ignoring him, Putin is letting him wait for hours, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron don’t find the time or see a point in meeting with him at the NATO summit, which he tried to crash without invitation.

His calculation is fairly simple. In “the State of Israel versus Benjamin, son of Zila and Benzion Netanyahu,” not presenting himself as “Prime Minister Netanyahu” means four to five years of court hearings. The fresh septuagerian will be 75 or older if it ends in his acquittal, and 78 to 80 if it ends with a conviction and prison time. The cost of his defense will be $5—10 million, given the reasonable consideration that he will hire a sizeable defense team, more senior and more expensive than the team that has worked for him until now. Can anyone conceive Netanyahu and his family willingly take such a huge and uncalculatable risk? Can anyone conceive that someone who asked to pay a 50,000-shekel ($14,400) fine in installments will pay $10 million?

Raising money for his defense is nearly impossible, but a plea deal, as unpleasant as it is, will allow Netanyahu to do three things. First, it will avoid the embarrassment of a Likud primary, and the even greater embarrassment of an election come February or March. The polls that Netanyahu sees for the race against Sa’ar in the primary and against Benny Gantz in the general election are not optimistic. Second, it will reinforce his narrative of a “coup” — that he "had no choice” but to confess and express regret. Third, the plea bargain will enable him to fall comfortably into the embrace of the American right, which sees him as a victim, like Trump, a righteous person that the elites conspired against to overthrow. Netanyahu can lecture, can sit on the boards of corporations and think tanks owned by American right wingers, who always saw him as one of them, earn millions of dollars and write an autobiography that countless Evangelical Christians will buy.

Since the April election, political commentary has concentrated on Netanyahu's two defeats – a relative failure at the ballot box and an absolute failure to form a coalition. This is no longer relevant. Netanyahu hoped to legislate the bill colloquially known as the French Law, which shields a sitting prime minister from having to stand trial. He believed that the Knesset would award him immunity after establishing a government after the April election, and again after September. It didn’t happen, and it won’t happen.

The legal and ethical arguments over his status as prime minister, or only as a legislator heading a transitional government, are crucial regarding the substance of Israeli democracy but miss the point, as do the scholarly debates over Sections 18 and 30 of the Basic Law: The Government. They keep constitutional legal experts and political analysts busy, but only offer partial solutions to the constitutional mess that has dragged on since April. Crucially, they have not managed to intelligently forecast which direction Netanyahu is heading — however, his path is now clear: Benjamin Netanyahu will not waste a fortune and risk three to five years in prison.

Alon Pinkas was an adviser to four foreign ministers and the consul general in New York. Avi Tiomkin is an adviser to international hedge funds.