Netanyahu Plea Deal: Mercy, Not Exoneration

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Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, last week.
Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
B. Michael
B. Michael

Sometimes one can learn from Jewish law.

Take, for example, the aphorism from Proverbs, “He that covereth his transgressions shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy.” These words have been used time and again by sinners, criminals and villains to escape paying the full price for their misdeeds. “I admit I was wrong,” says the offender proudly. “In exchange, have mercy on me, as it is written, and don’t punish me too severely.”

You could call this the biblical source of the plea bargain. The offender is given an attractive deal: Confess your crime and promise to amend your evil ways, and in return – a measure of mercy during sentencing. No confession? No promise? No deal.

So it is in Jewish law, and so it should be in Israeli civil law: Plea bargains should only address the offenses the defendant admitted committing, and the severity of the punishment that is to be imposed. A defendant who requests the withdrawal of charges to which he has not admitted will be told, in so many words: It says, “Whoever confesses and forsakes will obtain mercy,” not “will be exonerated.”

(By the way, our sages liken one who returns to the ways of sin to “someone who immerses his hand [in water] with [the carcass] of an impure animal.” I bring this to the attention of MK Arye Dery, who was recently caught once again committing financial crimes. We can only hope that next time, he’ll remove the carcass from his hand.)

The defendant Benjamin Netanyahu is ready to admit to two or three counts of fraud and breach of trust. That’s nice of him. In exchange, he deserves a degree of mercy in sentencing. He is unwilling to confess to bribery, but nevertheless demands that in exchange for admitting to the other offenses, the bribery charges be dropped. Why? How could he? On what basis? The very idea is not only absurd, distorted and brazen, but lacks any legal, moral or logical basis. He should have been told immediately, “Forget it.” But, the negotiations continue.

Does Netanyahu really believe that he is innocent of all bribery? Great. He should appear in court and prove his innocence. Because from the moment a trial gets underway – and this should be stipulated by law, once and for all – only the court should have the power to exonerate or to convict, to reduce the charges and expand them, not the attorney general who spent four years gathering evidence that he believes proves the defendant is guilty of bribery, not any shrewd lawyers, middlemen, lobbyists or Bibi-ists. The court and only the court.

This is the lesson that Israeli lawmakers should learn from that passage from Jewish law, “whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy” and the embarrassing fiasco of the plea bargain talks with Bibi: Plea bargains require an admission of having committed the offense, and will deal only with the severity of the punishment. Once the trial begins, all bargaining over charges to which the defendant did not confess must be prohibited.

Vis-a-vis bribery, fraud and breach of trust – offenses that relate only to civil servants and elected officials and that harm the entire public as well as the moral fabric of society – the defendant must confess their crimes in public and pledge, again in public, to mend their evil ways and never return to them. Then, and only then, shall they merit a degree of mercy.

I wanted to bring my proposal to the fresh government of change and the legislature, but upon reflection I instead went out to drink cappuccino in the rain and wish for a little snow to cool my sweaty brow.

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