Netanyahu’s plea-deal dilemma: Does get-out-of-jail mean ending his political career?

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It’s hard to imagine a better deal being offered to Benjamin Netanyahu than the plea bargain reportedly on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s desk. All the former prime minister has to do is plead guilty to two charges of fraud and breach of trust, and in return the third fraud charge and the single count of bribery will be dropped. He won’t have to go to jail, he’ll just get a few months of community service.

There will be a hefty fine as well, but it will be much less than the legal bills awaiting Netanyahu if he continues with the trial at the Jerusalem District Court for another two or three years. After that he will be likely to get a much worse sentence that could see him spend his 80th birthday in Wing 10 of Maasiyahu Prison. So all he has to do is sign on the bottom line and endure a brief spell of indignity, then look forward to a peaceful and comfortable retirement.

Why isn’t he signing? The deal won’t remain on the table forever. Mendelblit is retiring in a couple of weeks and the next attorney general will be nowhere near as generous.

It may seem like the perfect deal, and his lawyers are recommending that he take it, but those around Netanyahu – his wife, two sons and die-hard supporters – have been convinced over the past five years that the investigations and indictment are all one big left-wing witch hunt. They want to see him fight to the end.

One of Netanyahu’s chief media cheerleaders, Channel 14 anchor Erel Segal, perfectly articulated the feeling in the Bibi camp when he tweeted Thursday: “Take your proposal and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. You carried out a coup. You doctored files. You drove a whole country crazy in your mad hatred. Jewish history will not forgive you.”

Netanyahu and his lawyers at the court.Reuven Castro

Not only does Netanyahu have to overcome such opposition to a plea deal, he’s deeply worried about whether his base will remain loyal if he pleads guilty to two charges – even though he’ll tell them he only did it to protect his family.

Then there’s the financial question. Netanyahu will save money in the short term if he cuts his losses now, but he has grand expectations of directorships and consulting gigs once he finally retires. Those may not be there once he’s a convicted fraudster. And of course he has an eye on history. He wants to be remembered as Israel’s great savior, not the man who was forced off the stage by corruption.

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It’s just like his predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert. So maybe he should fight on in court? But Olmert went to prison, and Netanyahu doesn’t want to be remembered as the second Israeli prime minister behind bars.

Above all, Netanyahu’s hesitation to sign is due to Mendelblit’s demand that the sentence include a “moral turpitude” clause, meaning he wouldn’t be able to hold public office for seven years. And the clock would only start after his suspended sentence was over.

In other words, taking the deal means Netanyahu won’t be able to run in another election this decade. Effectively, it means the end of the political career of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister who believed he could rule the country well into his 80s. No triumphant comeback as Israel’s Churchillian hero.

Netanyahu with his father, Benzion, who lived to 102 and did research into his late 90s.flash 90

Mendelblit has been very considerate of the defendant, but once he embarked on the indictments he made clear that the main objective was getting Netanyahu to exit so Israeli politics could finally begin to heal from his corrupt influence. He’s not going to budge on the moral turpitude clause. Netanyahu has to give up all hope of returning to power if he wants his get-out-of-jail card. Or does he?

There may be a third way: Netanyahu takes the deal, resigns from the Knesset and tries to convince his base that he did it for the good of the nation, not because he was guilty. He won’t be able to run for office again for seven years, but that doesn’t mean he has to relinquish leadership of Likud. He won’t lead the party in the next two or three elections, but he will work hard to undermine any potential new leader and try to install caretakers who swear fealty to him as the party’s interim heads and candidates for prime minister.

A vigorous 72-year-old today, he can expect to turn 80 in full possession of his faculties and as a free man, emerge from his time-out and contend once again – just like his friend Silvio Berlusconi, who at 85 is running for the presidency of Italy.

Can he do it? Quite possibly. The potential challengers right now in Likud are at each other’s throats and are unlikely to form a common front against Netanyahu, who still commands the absolute loyalty of three-quarters of party members. As long as he’s healthy, Netanyahu believes he can lead. After all, his historian father, Benzion, lived to 102 and was still doing research and writing in his late 90s.

If Netanyahu does take the plea bargain now on offer, it won’t be an acknowledgment that his long political career is finally over. No matter what, he’ll be back.

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