The former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly close to reaching a plea bargain in his corruption trial, a development that could mean an unexpectedly swift end to his turbulent political career and once again upend Israeli politics.
Israeli media were dominated on Sunday by the news that Netanyahu, the chair of the Likud party and leader of the opposition since being ousted last year from a 12-year-stint in government, has reached advanced talks with the state attorney’s office.
In the reported agreement, Netanyahu will admit to two counts of breach of trust, resulting in a suspended prison sentence and a few months of prison time that will be converted to community service.
The major remaining sticking point appears to be the insistence of the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, on a charge of moral turpitude – a formal declaration that Netanyahu is desperate to avoid as it could bar him from political life for seven years.
The former prime minister is on trial accused of trading preferential treatment for a major Israeli telecom company in exchange for positive articles on its Walla news site. He is also a defendant in a second case involving claims of soliciting favourable coverage, and a third alleging he received gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from wealthy friends.
The 72-year-old rejected calls to step down after he was indicted in 2019, using the podium as prime minister to repeatedly lash out at law enforcement, the media and the courts for conducting a “witch hunt” against him.
His trial formally began in 2020 while the country was embroiled in a two-year-long political crisis during which time there were four elections, with voters deadlocked over Netanyahu’s leadership and indictment.
Proceedings against him had been expected to drag on for years – but with Mandelblit’s term as attorney general due to end later this month, and his replacement unlikely to prioritise Netanyahu’s cases, it appears the former prime minister’s legal team has decided the window for a plea bargain is closing.
The retired supreme court president Aharon Barak, a longstanding ally of Netanyahu, has reportedly acted as the liaison between the former prime minister and state prosecutors. Speaking to the Ynet news website, he said of his role in the negotiations: “In my view, this is a unique indictment and trial, which is causing a rift in the nation. In the attempt to heal that rift, a plea bargain is the preferable option. This position is positive and vital for the state of Israel.”
A plea deal in which Netanyahu is banned from politics for several years would effectively end his career.
It would also trigger a leadership contest for Likud, the fallout from which could reverberate in unpredictable ways. The Likud could descend into internal warfare over the election of a new chair, hindering its attempts to destabilise the diverse coalition government that was sworn in last June.
However, if the party does manage to comprehensively agree on a new leader, rightwing elements of the governing coalition might consider scrapping the current arrangement in favour of a more politically coherent government with the new Likud chair at its head.
The daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday quoted a Likud source as saying that in recent months Netanyahu, who had kept the deal talks secret from his party, had “shifted into a lower gear”.
It said the former prime minister was “less centred, less focused, he didn’t participate much in Knesset plenum meetings, he cancelled faction meetings. The only thing he did was attack senior party members and post childish videos on TikTok. That’s no way to lead the opposition.”
As well as striking a deal over his corruption charges, Netanyahu is also considering a compromise in a defamation case against his predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
The Likud leader has demanded 837,000 shekels (£197,000) in damages from Olmert over allegations he made in interviews that Netanyahu, his wife Sara and eldest son, Yair – also rightwing public figures – are mentally ill.
Judge Amit Yariv suggested in a hearing last week that Olmert state his comments were opinion rather than fact – a compromise that a Netanyahu family spokesperson said was acceptable, although there was no immediate indication that Olmert would accept it.
Other than Netanyahu, Olmert is the only Israeli prime minister to face trial for corruption-related charges. He was found guilty in 2015 and served two-thirds of a 27-month sentence for fraud.