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Moral Turpitude: Who, and What Killed Netanyahu’s Plea Deal?

jewishjournal.com

As I write this column, it seems clear that Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the plea deal with Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who’s about to retire at the end of this month. It is also clear that the deal was rejected because of the ‘Moral Turpitude’ clause, which stipulated that Netanyahu was to admit to it, and as a result will resign from his membership in the Knesset, from leading the Likud party, and retire too from the political arena for seven years. But why? It was so close?

Some reporters ‘in the know’ reported that it was ultimately Sara Netanyahu, his wife, who’d put the kibosh on that deal. That Netanyahu had committed a ‘Moral Turpitude’ while in office as Prime Minister for so many years was not in doubt. That’s what surely happens when you accumulate that much power, for so long a time, and begin to see yourself as the incarnation of ‘King David,’ urged on by a conniving wife, and a right-wing extremist son. You are becoming all-powerful, and all-power is essentially corrupt. To admit to ‘Moral Turpitude,’ however, and worse to recuse yourself from political life—while you are still, and by far, the most popular leader in Israel—is another matter altogether.

Let’s remind ourselves briefly what, as indeed I was writing about here a number of times before, Netanyahu is accused of: Fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Not small a change. Which he denies, of course, of ever having or committed. He has accused AG Mendelblit, the Police and prosecutors of corruption and all kind of other accusations. But against all odds and many delays, his trial has commenced and continued unabated. It so happened because in three consecutive elections Netanyahu had failed to form a majority government, and thereafter kill the trial. In the government he was finally able to form, with Blue and White’s Gantz, he was forced to accept that the trial will go on.

Again, as predicted in this blog not once (based on minimal legalistic knowledge), the trial not only materialized but has proved much more problematic, and potentially damaging to Netanyahu than he and his fervent supporters had thought possible. A number of witnesses had produced damaging evidence, causing shaking and headaches for Netanyahu’s defense. So much so that it was Netanyahu himself who began hearing the squeaking iron gates of jail being open, welcoming him in. As a result, he turned to former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, probably the most respected Judge still in the land, to facilitate the plead deal.

So Barak turned to Mendelblit, who began the process. It was reported also that during that process, he had offered Netanyahu initially only two years’ absence from political life, which was much easier for Netanyahu to accept. However, prosecutors and legal minds involved had raised hell about it. And rightly so. With all due respect to AG Mendelblit and all that he has done to bring the trial forward, it is well worth remembering that he has served in Netanyahu‘s government, and was regarded as a close confidant for a time, if not a friend. So The “Moral Turpitude’ clause became seven years. As you know, seven years is a very symbolic, significant number in the bible and Jewish tradition and history.

For a while, as has been reported in the Israeli media, the odds in favor of such a plea deal becoming a reality were very high. “In a few days.” “Early next week.” So screamed the headlines. And I have to admit that, unlike the plurality of Israelis, as a number of polls have suggested, I felt that I would welcome such a deal. As a staunch objector to Netanyahu and all that he has represented, from instigating Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, squashing any chances of the two-state solution from becoming a reality, the continuation of the settlement endeavor, and his bro hugging of the pitiful, despotic Trump, I still saw his potential removal from Israel’s political life as more important than seeing him go to jail.

Furthermore: The government just approved an inquiry into Germany’s ‘Submarine Affair,’ in which Netanyahu can be in real ‘troubled water.’ It might generate more opportunities to put him behind closed bars. There are of course Netanyahu’s supporters, and some legal minds, who don’t see it this way, and believe the prosecution is on shaky ground. Come what may, the possibility of Netanyahu going to jail certainly exists. He knows that. But he also knows that unlike other cases in recent Israeli history—President Katsav, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—if he is convicted and about to be locked up, it will create havoc. His supporters will raise hell, and the possibility of blood in the streets, a semi civil-war, is likely. Which, I believe, Netanyahu would welcome, both personally and politically.

And so, what killed the deal at the end was indeed the ‘Moral Turpitude’ clause, and not his wife’s orders, even if that was part of it.  Specifically, the retirement from political life for seven years, and not so much the partial admittance of guilt on his part. Like his American bro, Trump—who can also hear the gates of the legal system finally beginning to close on him—the one thing he couldn’t stand was the loss of power. Dictators need the power to sustain their wellbeing. Crimes are no big deal for them; they commit them all the time. Being out of power, however, is akin to death.

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A Few Good Men & Women

As a dedicated, sometimes even astute (hopefully) observer of Israel and America’s relations and politics, I pride myself on some farsighted observations throughout the years of writing this blog. And yet, I didn’t see this one coming. Had you told me last year that in the space of a little over six months both Trump and Netanyahu would be gone, no longer in power, I would’ve found it hard to believe. But here we are, with the most surprising development of the two being the fall of the house of ‘King Bibi,’ after more than twelve years as Israel’s Prime Minister.

I’m in good company, not seeing it coming, though I gave it some 25% possibility before the elections. But let me tell you: On the first day after the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas had ended, I listened to my favorite Israeli political observer talking about the possibility of a new government being formed. Here is what he said, more or less: “The only question is whether Yair Lapid (head of Yesh Atid, who had the mandate from President Rivlin to form a new coalition, H.D.), would hand the president his mandate now, saying he’d failed to form a coalition, or he’ll wait the 14 days left for him and then give it back without any positive results.”

Well, you know the outcome. Bucking all predictions and expectations, Yair Lapid was able to go back to the president before the hour struck midnight and tell him that he had succeeded, where others had failed. He, and not the current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the true, and first good man of this semi-political revolution. He started during the elections, when he directed his campaign, and asked his supporters too, not to attack the parties to his left, Labor and Meretz, since he wanted them to be able to enter the new Knesset. What a noble act. And he reaped the rewards, since they joined his coalition.

His second noble, and novel idea was to put aside his ego, and though he is the leader of the largest party in this coalition with 17 members in the new Knesset, he offered to hand over the premiership to Bennett for the first two years, even though Bennett has only six MKs in his party. Unheard off. And that despite Bennett declaring during the latest war with Hamas in Gaza that coalition talks with Lapid are practically dead, as far as he was concerned. And yet Lapid was able to pull him in yet again, and together with seven other parties—among them an Arab Party—to form a governing coalition. What a miracle: putting your ambitions aside for the sake of what’s best for the country and its shaking democracy.

Before moving on to the next ‘good man’ on my list, let me return to America and to the much welcomed, disgraced as it were, fall of former President Trump. Unlike other observers I read, and also what seems to be the common belief among the public at large, it was not the constitution that had saved American democracy from collapsing (though it was very close to it). It was a few good men and women who stepped up to the plate and defended the constitution, the rule of law, and the integrity of the elections. I won’t name them here (you probably heard of them plenty), but when push came to shove they—most of them Republican officials—stood by the walls of the castle and defended our fragile democracy.

Though the political process and system in Israel are different, in essence, the same happened there, and without a constitution. This brings me to the second ‘good man’ on my list. Benny Gantz, the Defense, or Security Minister. He is the only minister to remain in office from the previous government. He too did the right thing for the country and joined Netanyahu in government throughout the pandemic. He was supposed to become Prime Minister this coming November, but Netanyahu betrayed him, as he betrayed others. And then, when in the last moment Netanyahu offered to resign immediately, and to hand him the premiership for the three remaining years in the coalition term, he didn’t hesitate to refuse. He is the leader, also, of the second-largest party in this coalition, yet has put his ambition aside and didn’t demand to be a Prime Minister too.

Next must be Naftali Bennett. While he was regarded from the outset as the kingmaker, it was not clear at all that he would crown himself as king. Not the least because for the first time in Israel’s history, a leader of a very small party became the Prime Minister and leader of the country. So in a way he has the most to gain, but also the most to lose. The attacks on him from Netanyahu’s camp are indeed ferocious, and threatening with violence. He, originally an extreme right-wing leader, a supporter of not only the settlement endeavor but the annexation of a large part of the West Bank, now sits in a government with two parties from the left, and an Arab party to boot. The outcome of this government, however long it would survive, is of course unclear, and at the end of it he might find himself with a party without any significant public support.

His right hand throughout the years, from working together in Netanyahu’s office to forming their party and remaining united through thick and thin, is Ayelet Shaked, currently the Minister of the Interior. And while I’m as far as can be from being a supporter of her, she deserves some credit too. If for nothing else, then for standing by this coalition agreement, despite heavy threats from Netanyahu’s camp, including death threats to her and her family. Another woman worth mentioning here, in closing, is Merav Michaeli, the current Minister of Transportation. She resurrected the Labor party from the dead in an impressive fashion, didn’t hesitate to join this strange coalition, and seems like a safe bet for a leader with a bright future.

All in all, while the days ahead will provide answers as to how long this government will stay in power (the predictions are not for long), and how much good it will be able to do (the expectations are not high), it has already succeeded in its main and most important goal: kicking Netanyahu out of office and saving Israel’s democracy. Not bad for a start.

* The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

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