Netanyahu shuns plea deal sidelining him from politics for seven years

Former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: ‘I’ll keep leading Likud and the national camp.’ File photograph: AP

Former Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu has refused to agree to a plea deal that would ban him from politics for seven years and declared he will remain the leader of the Likud party and fight to return to power.

Israel’s longest serving prime minister is on trial in the Jerusalem district court on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies the charges, claiming he is the victim of a left-wing witch hunt supported by the elites in the judiciary and media.

Two weeks ago it was revealed that lawyers for Mr Netanyahu were negotiating with Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, over a plea deal before Mr Mandelblit stepped down from office at the end of the month.

However, Mr Mandelblit insisted that any deal contain a clause of moral turpitude which would mean Mr Netanyahu would be banned from public office for seven years, effectively ending the career of the 72-year-old leader of Israel’s right.

“Citizens of Israel, in recent days, you’ve proven once again that I’m not alone and that millions of you are with me. You’ve deeply moved me. I’ll keep leading Likud and the national camp,” said Mr Netanyahu in a video distributed to the media. “The entire public sees what’s happening in court and how the investigation against me was led. That should have been enough to close the cases against me now, but it still hasn’t happened.”

Eight-party coalition

The current government led by right-wing prime minister Naftali Bennett has a wafer-thin majority of one in the 120-member Knesset parliament and the prospect of a return to power by Mr Netanyahu is the glue that is keeping the disparate eight-party coalition together.

There was speculation that if a plea deal was clinched a new leader of the Likud could strike an agreement with right and centrist parties of the coalition to form a new government. However, senior Likud politicians were quick to rally round Mr Netanyahu following his announcement that he was staying on as party leader.

Veteran commentator Ben Caspit, writing in the Ma’ariv newspaper, wrote that Mr Netanyahu had always sought a plea bargain, despite his assertion that he would prove his innocence in court.

“Netanyahu quietly sought out talks in the hope that he might be able to find an exit route for himself. But Netanyahu, being Netanyahu, was always a bit late. He never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The same thing that has happened to him in the political arena in the past two years has also happened to him in the legal arena in the past three years. He lost his touch. He wasn’t on the ball and misread the map.”