Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud Party and is currently the leader of the opposition, is continuing to haggle through his lawyers with the Israeli Public Prosecutor to reach a plea bargain to end several corruption and breach of trust court proceedings against him.
There are three main cases against Netanyahu, now 73 years old, who served as Israel’s prime minister over the past 12 years. The first is Case 4000, in which he is accused of offering benefits to the owner of the Israeli news website Walla in return for “favourable” media coverage of Netanyahu’s cabinet.
In the second case, Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of receiving gifts from businessmen in return for facilitation. In the third, Case 2000, he is accused of trying to reach an agreement with the owner of the Yedioth Ahronot newspaper to ensure favourable coverage in return for measures that would weaken its competitor Yisrael Hayom.
Despite statements by Israeli media outlets that Netanyahu has asked his lawyers to reach a plea deal with prosecutors on these cases, Netanyahu has not himself announced this.
However, the anticipated step has triggered a deluge of analyses about the future of politics in Israel, some looking at Israel’s right-wing camp and its largest component the Likud Party and others focusing on the future of the incumbent government.
Even though Netanyahu is not a member of this, he still has influence over the balance of power upon which it is built.
A plea deal would require Netanyahu to plead guilty to moral turpitude in Case 4000 and Case 1000 and for the prosecutor-general to drop Case 2000 altogether. In return, Netanyahu would not face jail time if convicted but would be sentenced to community service for seven to nine months instead.
The real obstacle to this deal, according to Netanyahu’s inner circle, is that it would ban him from politics for up to seven years, meaning the end of his political career.
If Netanyahu agrees to the deal, the Likud Party, the largest right-wing party in Israel with the most seats in the Israeli parliament the Knesset at 30 out of 120, would need a new leader.
Among the candidates to succeed Netanyahu if he opts for the deal is Nir Barkat, a Knesset member and former mayor of Jerusalem. Other contenders are Avi Dichter, a former head of the internal security service Shabak, and Yuli Edelstein, a former minister of health.
Other names have been put forward, including Gilad Erdan, Israel’s current ambassador to the UN, Moshe Feiglin, a former deputy Knesset speaker, and Tzachi Hanegbi, who previously served in the Israeli cabinet.
These three candidates are considered to be less likely to be selected as the new leader.
Netanyahu’s rivals inside and outside the Likud Party believe he was the main reason why the right-wing bloc failed to form a government after the March 2021 elections in Israel.
These ushered in a coalition government that included right, left, and centrist parties, as well as the United Arab List (UAL), which for the first time supported a coalition Israeli government.
Netanyahu’s name is linked to various disputes with right-wing parties in Israel, as well as extensive quarrels with non-right-wing parties. Most of the latter closed ranks to form the current cabinet headed by Naftali Bennett and alternate prime minister Yair Lapid.
Many Israelis believe that if Netanyahu quits politics, the right-wing would once again be able to form a government.
Among the repercussions of a possible plea deal is the possible collapse of the incumbent coalition cabinet, which is supported by 61 Knesset members, the narrowest majority needed to form a government.
Bennett’s cabinet includes members of the Yesh Atid Party led by foreign minister and alternate prime minister Lapid, and the Kachol Lavan Party led by Minister of Defence Benny Gantz, both centre-left parties.
Other cabinet partners include the Yamina Coalition led by Bennett, which includes several smaller right-wing parties, and Yisrael Beiteinu, another right-wing party, which is led by Minister of Finance Avigdor Lieberman.
It also includes several left-wing parties, including the Labour Party, the Meretz Party, and Tikva Hadasha, as well as the UAL led by Knesset member Mansour Abbas.
This miscellaneous combination makes the coalition government very fragile, since what united the parties was the desire to end Netanyahu’s grip on power after he headed the Israeli government for 12 years.
If Netanyahu takes the plea deal and exits the political scene, it will be a good opportunity for partners in the coalition government to reconsider remaining in the government.
Netanyahu’s absence would leave two possible options. The coalition could expand to include Likud members, which would strengthen it and end what the incumbent government views as “blackmail” by the UAL. The latter has proposed policies adamantly rejected by the main figures in the Israeli cabinet.
Alternatively, it could fall apart, and a new government could be formed. There could be early elections, which would create a new balance of forces in the Knesset and a new government.
This may be a likely option since several Likud members have denied negotiating with the present government to join the cabinet when Netanyahu goes.
Whichever scenario takes place, Netanyahu and his long legacy in Israeli politics will leave a huge impact on Israeli political life, especially due to the many crises that current and future governments will face.
These include the nuclear issue, attempts to revive the peace process with the Palestinians, the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic impacts, and relations with the current US administration under President Joe Biden.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.