Netanyahu’s potential plea deal reflects Israel’s bigger picture

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his prosecutors are reportedly finalizing the details of a plea deal that would effectively water down, shelve or drop altogether all three major corruption cases that led to his high-profile trial in May 2020. If it materializes, Israel would officially sink to a new low in terms of political nepotism and corruption.

News of the possible deal has returned the controversial Israeli politician to center stage in the country’s media coverage. Many questions are being asked about the details of the agreement, the timing and the long-term impact on Netanyahu’s political future.

Netanyahu became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister when he held office for 15 years in two spells, from 1996 to 1999 and 2009 to 2021. Whether his ousting by former pupil-turned-rival Naftali Bennett last year will be the end of the right-wing ideologue’s time in the corridors of power is yet to be determined.

Netanyahu’s detractors seem to be split: Some are pleased to see him, however symbolically, disgraced, while others are disappointed that the former prime minister will only pay a small price — mere community service — over his three corruption cases.

The nature of the former prime minister’s alleged corruption tells a story that is bigger than the man himself. The tentacles of Netanyahu, his family, his political entourage, his business networks and his media outreach point to a growing and rooted corruption in Israeli society at all levels.

While other Israeli officials have been charged, tried and sentenced before for far less significant crimes, Netanyahu could potentially walk free, despite the fact that, during his years in power, his illegal practices turned corruption in Israel from a normal phenomenon into an endemic one.

It seems that Israelis have become so familiar with corruption in their own political circles that the main question left to ponder is simply whether Netanyahu will be allowed back into politics or if the 72-year-old will be banned for a fixed number of years.

According to Israeli law, if Netanyahu’s community service is shorter than three months and he faces the final verdict as a private citizen, not as an elected member of the Knesset, then the prosecutors will not slap him with a label of moral turpitude. In such circumstances, Netanyahu would be allowed to return to politics.

However, if his sentence is longer than three months, he would be branded with the kind of legal language that would bar him from politics for a certain number of years — estimated to be seven. Some analysts suggest that, even if he is not branded, Israel’s Central Elections Committee could still bar him from participating in future elections.

These issues are most likely to be clarified before Jan. 31, the last day of Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s time in office. It was he who issued the indictments against Netanyahu and, according to Israeli media, he is keen to finalize the case before the end of his mandate. The next attorney general will be assigned by Netanyahu’s arch-enemy, Bennett, who is more interested in prolonging his predecessor’s ordeal than giving him a new lease of political life.

Citing Israeli analysts, CNN reported that, since Netanyahu has served as “the glue that has bound” Bennet’s “hodgepodge” coalition together, he continues to serve an important role as the head of the opposition. “But if he were to exit the stage, it could provide an opening for a new coalition, made up entirely of right-wing and religious parties, that could topple the current unity government,” CNN reported.

While Netanyahu’s political career remains the main topic of discussion among Israel’s ruling class, little discussion and media coverage is given to the subject of corruption in the Israeli government and business sectors.

Netanyahu is not the first elected Israeli official to be charged with corruption. In December 2015, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was charged for far less consequential misconduct, including bribes estimated at 60,000 shekels ($15,500). The charges were mostly linked to the time when Olmert served as mayor of Jerusalem. Though some of the charges were eventually dropped, Olmert was initially sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served 18 months. The last image Israelis had of Olmert was that of a disgraced politician being dragged from his prison cell to an Israeli court and back.

It seems that the days when Israel successfully managed to create near-perfect separation between its political and judicial systems are long gone. Thanks to Netanyahu, ideological and political polarization in Israeli society no longer allows for such division of authorities.

Even the language that is associated with corrupt Israeli officials has changed. Netanyahu often accused his enemies of an “attempted coup” and the court system of a “witch hunt.” Many in Israel believe him and find his language perfectly suited for the country’s current state of affairs.

The tentacles of Netanyahu, his family, his political entourage, his business networks and his media outreach point to a growing and rooted corruption in Israeli society at all levels.

Ramzy Baroud

Historically, Israel has also managed to balance two separate and contradictory realities. One is based on the abuse of human rights and violation of international law — it is through this moral blindness that Israelis convinced themselves that their military occupation of Palestine and racial segregation and discrimination against Palestinians is fully justifiable. The other is based on a model of fraudulent democracy that catered to Israel’s Jewish citizens at the expense of Palestinians. As far as Israeli Jews were concerned, their democracy seemed largely unblemished.

Things are changing, however, as Israel’s moral corruption in Palestine has slowly but irreversibly also afflicted the Israeli Jewish body politic. Israel’s long-standing claim of being a Jewish and democratic state at the same time is faltering. The country’s endemic corruption is proof of this assertion. It turns out that morality cannot be divided based on geography, class, religion or race. It might be time for ordinary Israelis to accept this unavoidable truth.

  • Ramzy Baroud 

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