By Ramzy Baroud
Former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his prosecutors are reportedly finalizing the details of a plea deal that would practically water down, shelve, or drop altogether all three major corruption cases that have led to his high-profile trial in May 2020. If such news actualizes, Israel would officially sink to a new low in terms of political nepotism and corruption.
News of the possible deal has, once more, placed the controversial Israeli politician back at the center stage of 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.
It is a well-known fact that Netanyahu is already Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Whether his ousting by his former pupil, now enemy, Naftali Bennett, is the end of the right-wing ideologue’s time in the corridors of power is yet to be determined. Bennett, an extremist politician in his own right, had cobbled up a government coalition in June 2021, ending Netanyahu’s long and uninterrupted reign.
Netanyahu’s detractors seem to be split: Some are pleased to see him, however symbolically, disgraced; others are disappointed that the former prime minister will only pay a small price – mere community service – for three corruption cases: Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000.
Case 1000, pertaining to charges of fraud and breach of trust, is the only one that Netanyahu will be convicted for, if the plea deal is confirmed. Unlike the other cases, however, this particular case, in which Netanyahu is being accused of receiving expensive gifts from various overseas businessmen, is the least significant. The other two cases are of high-level corruption, involving the country’s largest telecommunications company, Bezeq, and hundreds of millions of dollars of funds resulting from Netanyahu’s advancing legal, political and regulatory benefits to his backers in exchange for favorable media coverage.
The nature of Netanyahu’s 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 have turned corruption in Israel from a normal phenomenon into an endemic.
It seems that Israelis have become so familiar with corruption among their own political circles that the main question left to ponder is simply whether Netanyahu will be allowed back in politics or will the 72-year-old politician be banned for a fixed number of years. The answer will largely depend on the duration and the language of Netanyahu’s indictment, per the plea deal.
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 (parliament), then the prosecutors will not slap him with a label of moral turpitude. In such a case, Netanyahu would be allowed to return to politics.
However, if the former prime minister’s sentence is more than three months, he would be branded with the kind of legal language which would bar him from politics for a certain number of years – estimated at seven years. Some analysts suggest that even if he is not branded, Israel’s Central Elections Committee can still bar him from participating in future elections.
These issues are most likely to be clarified before January 31, the last day of Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit’s term in office. It was the latter who issued the indictments against Netanyahu and, according to Israeli media, is the one keen on finalizing 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 Netanyahu’s ordeal than giving him a new lease on political life.
Citing Israeli analysts, CNN reported that, since Netanyahu has served as “the glue that has bound” Bennet’s “hodgepodge” coalition together, Netanyahu, as the head of the opposition, continues to serve an important role. “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 subsequent media coverage are given to the subject of corruption in the Israeli government and business sector.
Netanyahu is not the first elected Israeli official to be charged with corruption. In December 2015, former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was charged for far less consequential misconduct, including bribes estimated at 60,000 shekel ($15,500). The charges were mostly linked to the time when Olmert served as the 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 images that Israelis had of Olmert is that of a disgraced politician being dragged back and forth from his prison cell to an Israeli court and back.
It seems that the days when Israel has 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 itself 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 Israel’s current state of affairs.
Historically, Israel has also managed to balance two separate and contradicting realities. One that is based on 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, racial segregation and discrimination against Palestinian Arabs 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 afflicted the Israeli Jewish body politic, as well. Israel’s long-standing claim of being a Jewish and democratic state at the same time is quickly 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 truism.