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To save Israel, give Netanyahu a plea deal

It’s time to give Bibi a way out — for the sake of the country’s future

It’s time for Israeli prosecutors to swallow a bitter pill and save their country. They must sign a plea deal with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s years-long trials are a kind of anomaly within Middle East politics. On the one hand, they have nothing to do with the war. On the other hand, they are determining the course of the war. This situation is terrible for Israel’s strategic interests. For Israel’s sake, it has to end. Bibi has to be given a path out of office that does not lead to prison.

Everyone close to Israel knows the situation. Netanyahu is charged in three separate cases, accused of bribery, corruption, and breach of public trust. For four years, these trials have plodded on, delayed both by Israel’s often plodding criminal justice system and by tactics on the part of Bibi’s lawyers. The cases are dragging on even while the defendant tries to conduct a war; just last month, Israel’s justice minister was called as a witness on Netanyahu’s behalf.

By all accounts, the cases against Netanyahu are strong, and Bibi probably knows it. Perversely, his best chance of avoiding conviction and likely prison time is to stay in office. Which now means that he must appease his far-right coalition partners, who have preposterous, messianic, genocidal plans for Gaza and the West Bank, even though these policies would be suicidal for the state of Israel.

These extremists are in the spell of their own fanatical delusions. But Bibi has to listen to them, or at least coddle them, to the dismay of everyone else, including conservative security hawks who have no love for the Palestinians but recognize the military and political limits on Israeli action. Even worse, with the collapse of Israel’s center-right “war cabinet” last week, the extremists now wield even more power, with rational centrists no longer around to counterbalance them.

As Thomas Friedman put it in his excellent column Tuesday, “This government is not your grandfather’s Israel and this Bibi is not even the old Bibi.” It is a “nightmare coalition” that has supported pogroms in the West Bank, sought to dismantle Israel’s independent judiciary, and urged an unsustainable and unjust permanent occupation of Gaza. It is even pressing Israel to open up a second front against Hezbollah, despite the horrifying potential of Iranian-supplied missiles raining down on all of Israel; again, only fanatical delusion explains such positions. “Add it all up,” writes Friedman, “and you see a reckless act of economic, military and moral overstretch.”

And it could all get much worse, very quickly. Friedman quotes former Israeli Prime Minister (and Chief of Staff) Ehud Barak, who warns that Israel could face “an all-out war with Hezbollah in the north, a third intifada in the West Bank, conflicts with the Houthis in Yemen and Iraqi militias in the Golan Heights and, of course, conflict with Iran itself.”

This is madness. And it is Israel’s reality not due to ideology or strategy, but due, at least in part, to Benjamin Netanyahu’s own personal interests.

Plea deals have been discussed before. Two years ago, it was reported that Netanyahu was actively negotiating a plea deal that would have dropped several of the charges against him. That negotiation fell apart.

But it’s time to restart it, on steroids. Israel needs a mega-plea-deal that would end all three cases against the prime minister, in exchange for an agreement to immediately call a new election, which polls show he would lose.

Of course, this would be painful. Netanyahu not only appears to be guilty of these crimes of moral turpitude, but the Israeli press has meticulously described his outrageous abuses of power: a lavish lifestyle complete with gifts of pink champagne, cigars, and expensive jewelry for his wife. It’s tacky, it’s repellant, and it’s particularly irksome that, like Donald Trump, Bibi has successfully depicted all of the charges against him as a political crusade.

Even the charges are tacky. Lots of unreported gifts. Arranging favorable press coverage in a media outlet, in exchange for promoting legislation that would harm a competitor. Helping the Israeli telecom company Bezeq in exchange for still more favorable press coverage.

But compare the injustice of letting Bibi get away with all of this to the consequences of his staying in office, reliant on a far-right coalition.

Of course, it’s possible that this government will fall on its own. After all, that’s happened five times in the last four years. And there are the coalition fractures of the day, currently revolving around whether Haredim will be required to serve in the army (a perennial favorite wedge issue) and Netanyahu’s total lack of plans for after (or if) the war in Gaza ends.

But we know Bibi is a survivor — a “wizard,” according to one nickname. He is the most adept politician in Israeli history. Should Israel’s future really depend on the hope that this coalition falls apart?

Those aren’t good enough odds, and the stakes are too high.

Nor is “standing up to Bibi,” as Friedman suggested, enough. That only strengthens his appeal at home, and in any case, with Netanyahu set to speak to Congress next month, “standing up” is beginning to look a little hollow.

No — those of us who care about Israel, Palestine, or America’s interests in the region must recognize that the far-right Israeli government is endangering all three, and that Bibi’s legal travails are a primary reason it is still in power.

Justice does not operate in an abstract world of pure principle. Particularly in Jewish law, it operates in the real one, where the choice is sometimes not between right and wrong but between the lesser of two evils. It is well-known that in halacha, all but three commandments may be violated to save a single human life. Now, millions of Israeli and Palestinian lives are at stake. Must we not yield in our pursuit of justice against one man, so that millions more can live?

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