Netanyahu in talks to reach plea bargain in corruption trial

Netanyahu in talks to reach plea bargain in corruption trial

2:56am Jan 17, 2022
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly in the early stages of negotiating a plea deal related to the corruptions charges he faces.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly in the early stages of negotiating a plea deal related to the corruptions charges he faces.
Amir Levy / Getty Images

Updated January 16, 2022 at 8:59 PM ET

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is negotiating a plea deal in his corruption trial that could lead to him stepping away from politics for seven years.

The former prime minister is facing three separate corruption cases that involve media moguls and wealthy supporters. The charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust stem from allegations including trading favors to media groups in exchange for positive press coverage.

The talks are going on behind closed doors with Israel's attorney general.

A person involved in the negotiations told NPR a deal would have Netanyahu admit to breach of trust, not bribery, and avoid prison. But disagreement remains over whether the final deal would necessitate Netanyahu leaving politics for seven years, at the end of which he would be nearly 80 years old.

Netanyahu remains a member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

An Israeli justice official confirmed to NPR that the negotiations are happening and are in the early stages. Both people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks.

The charges have significantly weakened Netanyahu politically. His loss of support led the country's parliament to oust him last June — putting an end to his 12-year run as the top politician.

The corruption trial has been going on for months with witnesses being called to the stand, so the news of a potential plea bargain is coming as somewhat of a surprise.

Netanyahu is still fighting the allegations against him

Netanyahu has called the charges against him trumped up and alleges there is a left-wing witch hunt against him, including in the justice system.

"They speak in high words about democracy. But what is done here again and again is an attempt to trample democracy. They are trying to cancel the will of the voters by fabricating charges," Netanyahu said in April.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is set to retire at the end of January. With with no permanent successor yet determined, it's unclear if a new attorney general would offer the same deal if Netanyahu does not accept it within the next two weeks.

Mandelblit could see a plea bargain as favorable to end Netanyahu's attacks on the justice system.

The deal could lead to a leadership race in Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party or even collapse Israel's government.

The current government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a diverse coalition that came together to push Netanyahu from office. A collapse could lead to a grab of power by right-wing parties.

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We're going to turn now to a political drama brewing in Israel. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's on trial for corruption, is in talks to reach a plea bargain. If such a deal goes forward, it could force Netanyahu to take a break from politics, which could have big implications for Israel's future.

NPR's Daniel Estrin is on the line with us now from Tel Aviv to tell us more. Daniel, welcome. Thanks so much for talking with us.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First, could you just remind us about Netanyahu's corruption trial? What charges is he facing?

ESTRIN: Yeah. He's facing three corruption cases. And they all involve his relationships with media moguls, including a Hollywood producer, a - an Israeli head of a news website. And the charges are that he gave them favors, and he got gifts and returns - champagne, cigars, positive press coverage. So he's facing some pretty serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. These charges have really weakened him politically, so much so that he was ousted last year after round after round of elections. His trial, his corruption trial, has been going on for months. Witnesses have been called to the stand. And now we're hearing this news of a potential plea bargain, which is really coming as a surprise.

MARTIN: So what would be the terms of this hypothetical plea bargain by Netanyahu?

ESTRIN: Well, so far, we're hearing media leaks. Nothing's official yet. This is being negotiated behind closed doors. I spoke to a person involved in negotiations who told me that under a potential deal, Netanyahu would admit to breach of trust, not fraud. And in exchange, he would not serve jail time. And there's still a disagreement on - if this deal comes through - on whether Netanyahu would be forced to leave office for seven years, which would put him out of office, out of public life until he's about 80 years old. I've also spoken to a justice official who wouldn't go into details, but he confirmed that these talks are ongoing.

MARTIN: What would be Netanyahu's motivation to reach a plea bargain? Because he certainly is, you know, not shy about fighting when he - for, you know, his position when he thinks he's right. And what does the Israeli public think?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Well, Netanyahu really has been fighting these allegations. He's been waging a war against the justice system. He's been calling the charges against him trumped up and really politicized the justice system. But now the attorney general is retiring in just two weeks, and so Netanyahu may have an interest in getting this deal now rather than in the future, whenever his future successor comes. And the attorney general may see a plea bargain also as favorable, as a kind of way to reach a cease-fire and to lower the flames on this fight against the justice system, to kind of restore democracy.

The Israeli public is divided. Netanyahu's supporters would probably rather see him fight the charges but probably willing to support him no matter what he decides. His critics are extremely critical about a possible plea bargain. They fear he may figure out a way to wiggle his way out of the deal somehow and figure out a way to come back to politics, even - you know, not wait it out for seven years.

MARTIN: We mentioned that this could have wider implications for the country. Could you just talk briefly about that? What impact could this have on the country going forward?

ESTRIN: Oh, this could be a political earthquake for Israel. It could, of course, lead to a leadership race in Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party if he steps down. And it could even collapse Israel's government. And we could see the current government, which is a diverse coalition, collapse and right-wing parties try to clinch power and come together with Netanyahu's successors.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Daniel Estrin speaking to us from Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you so much for sharing your reporting on this.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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