Netanyahu seeks plea-deal avoiding jail time but risking political exile

Israel’s ousted premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, is seeking a plea-bargain in his trial for corruption that means he could trade jail time for community service, but only if he accepts a seven-year ban from elected office, effectively ending his political career in disgrace.

The details of the deal being proposed were shrouded in secrecy late on Sunday, but two people familiar with the matter described the talks as being advanced enough to require written texts to be traded between Netanyahu’s lawyers and the attorney-general to move forward.

Nothing has been agreed, and “nobody should trust what the Israeli media, which has hated Netanyahu since day one” publishes on the issue, a person close to Netanyahu said. A person close to the attorney-general told Channel 12 news that the chances of a deal being made were very small. The talks were first reported by Maariv newspaper.

A spokesman for the justice ministry declined to comment. A lawyer for Netanyahu did not return calls seeking comment.

Negotiations revolve around downgrading some of the charges, dropping at least one, and requiring Netanyahu to complete community service instead of jail time, said two people familiar with the talks.

But the deal is incumbent on the 72-year-old Netanyahu pleading guilty to a charge of “moral turpitude”, which carries a seven-year ban from elected office. Netanyahu and his family consider this a red line, according to a person who spoke to them this weekend.

Talks would also need to be completed within the next fortnight, before the retirement date for attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit. A one-time ally of Netanyahu, Mandelblit brought charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against Israel’s longest-serving premier.

The charges against Netanyahu, nicknamed cases 1,000, 2,000 and 4,000, stem from overlapping probes into the prime minister and his wife Sara’s relationships with businessmen and media magnates. Over 15 months, investigators documented the couple receiving gifts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Partagas cigars and pink Dom Pérignon champagne.

In return, the couple delivered favours, prosecutors have alleged. The indictment alleges that Netanyahu lobbied for Arnon Milchan, the producer of Hollywood blockbusters such as Pretty Woman, to gain a multiyear US visa, sought positive news coverage from a media baron in exchange for denting the circulation of a rival, and promised regulatory benefits to a telecoms provider in return for more positive press.

The possibility that Netanyahu may plead guilty in a corruption trial that he has denounced for years as a politically motivated witch-hunt surprised Israelis. About half of those asked in separate polls told all three public broadcasters that they wanted the trial to continue.

The talks come less than a year after a disparate coalition, ranging from the liberal left to the ultranationalist right, banded together after four stalemated elections in under three years to oust Netanyahu from his fifth premiership.

The trial had consumed Israeli politics until Netanyahu’s defeat in June, reshuffling the rightwing landscape when his former coalition partners declined to support a prime minister under indictment. Without the support of two crucial parties, Netanyahu failed to get past the 61-seat threshold to form a coalition government.

But the indictment, and the years of nonstop leaks by investigators to friendly newspapers, never dimmed Netanyahu’s popularity among Likud voters. The party was propelled in last year’s elections to 36 seats, among its highest tallies.

That vote count kept alive the possibility that Netanyahu could suddenly sweep back to power if the current coalition, which governs with a single-seat majority and with the support of an Arab party, were to collapse.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett hinted at the turmoil that could ensue if the plea-deal went ahead, which political analysts said could allow a reshuffling of the coalition partners without Netanyahu in the picture.

“All of the various political analysts, with their graphs and scenarios, can rest assured,” he said after a cabinet meeting where the current wave of Omicron infections dominated the discussion. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel.”

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