January 25, 2022 | Policy Brief

Possible Netanyahu Plea Deal Could Shake Up Israeli Politics

January 25, 2022 | Policy Brief

Possible Netanyahu Plea Deal Could Shake Up Israeli Politics

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mulling a plea deal that would spare him prison time but likely bar him from politics for at least seven years. While still unlikely, such an agreement may have far-reaching implications for Israel’s current governing coalition.

Netanyahu is currently on trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust, and bribery in three separate corruption cases that allege he made questionable public decisions in exchange for favors and gifts.

Despite having dragged along for over five years, the legal process suddenly accelerated in the past two weeks, with Netanyahu, his lawyers, and his family actively pursuing and considering various plea options. The attorney general who brought the charges, Avichai Mandelblit, is due to leave office at month’s end, and both prosecution and defense see benefit in concluding the negotiations beforehand. Mandelblit’s successor, who will be appointed by current Justice Minister (and archrival of Netanyahu) Gidon Saar, is unlikely to pursue any kind of deal with Netanyahu. If the two parties do not strike a deal this week, the legal process will grind on.

An agreement would likely see Netanyahu plead guilty to certain charges, while others would be withdrawn. For Netanyahu, who has long described the investigations as an unfounded political witch hunt, the very act of seeking a deal marks a dramatic reversal — one whose impact on his standing among his supporters remains unclear.

At present, a deal seems very unlikely. The negotiations reached an impasse this week, though it is unclear if the very public blowup is just tactical.

If a deal is reached, however, it could impact Israel’s current governing coalition, which is a disparate mix of two right-wing parties, two centrist parties, two left-wing parties, and one Islamist party. This unlikely grouping joined forces in 2021 out of a desire to end Netanyahu’s 12-year reign. Having done so, the coalition now holds together thanks only to a self-enforcing equilibrium. The coalition’s left-leaning elements are roughly equal in size to the right-leaning ones, and both sides have respected each other’s political red lines. Maintaining this arrangement has been easy because the only realistic alternative — partnering with Netanyahu — is unacceptable to all.

But a plea deal could break this equilibrium. Mandelblit has made clear that any deal must include a finding that Netanyahu exhibited what the Israeli legal system calls “moral turpitude.” That would prohibit the former prime minister from seeking any public office for at least seven years.

Removing Netanyahu from the political scene would end a key rift in Israeli politics. In four consecutive elections, roughly half the voters expressed a desire to see him remain in power, and roughly half the opposite. With the polarizing Netanyahu out of the picture, Israel’s conservative parties, which enjoy an enormous majority in the Knesset but have failed to form a coalition since 2015 because some factions refuse to work with Netanyahu, could partner together once more.

To be sure, Netanyahu’s departure might not necessarily trigger an immediate coalition collapse in favor of a new right-wing government. There is still deep animosity between the rightists who helped depose Netanyahu and those who remained loyal to him.

But Netanyahu’s absence would at least change the bargaining power of the various factions within the current governing coalition. The left-wing coalition partners would still have no leverage to forge a coalition of their own, and the conservative factions could demand a higher price for allowing them to remain in the government.

This internal bargaining would grow more acute once Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party and currently Israel’s foreign minister, replaces Naftali Bennet as prime minister in August 2023, per their coalition agreement. While the coalition’s more moderate elements are eagerly awaiting the 2023 rotation, the conservatives’ improved leverage would grant them more sway than the moderates might have wished.

Shany Mor is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Israel Program. For more analysis from Shany and the Israel Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Shany on Twitter @ShMMor. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.