Amid Coalition Row, Lapid to Insist on Submarine Affair Probe

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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Coalition members at the Knesset this week, including Gantz, Lapid, Bennett and Sa'ar, who are seated in the center and flanked by Idit Silman (L) and Merav Michaeli (R)
Coalition members at the Knesset this week, including Gantz, Lapid, Bennett and Sa'ar, who are seated in the center and flanked by Idit Silman (L) and Merav Michaeli (R) Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Friday that he will not relent on the demand for the establishment a formal national commission of inquiry into the so-called submarine affair, despite an ongoing lack of consensus within the coalition.  

The submarine affair relates to allegations of misconduct involving the purchase of submarines and other naval vessels from the German firm ThyssenKrupp, and embroils Benjamin Netanyahu during his time as prime minister. 

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Speaking with protesters outside his home, Lapid said: “There's no question this affair needs to be investigated. Even if it takes a bit of time, even if it involves a fight. There is a political process here, we need to convince those who are not convinced.”

Lapid’s comments came in the wake of fury among senior coalition leaders over Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s announcement last week of two new moves, without coordinating them with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett or any other coalition partners. 

First, Gantz announced that he plans to act to establish the commission, as he had tried to do during the previous administration. Second, that he plans to release the minutes of the coronavirus cabinet.

A senior coalition figure said Wednesday that Gantz’s conduct risks the stability of the government. “It seems that he doesn’t understand that we’re not in [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government,” said the figure. “This isn’t a government within a government. We have to work together and in coordination.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar are opposed to the establishment of a submarine affair commission of inquiry, at least for now. They both prefer to postpone the probe in light of the fact that not much time has passed since the new government was formed and that the commission of inquiry into the Mount Meron disaster, in which 45 people were killed, be formed first. Whereas the coalition agreements provide for the establishment of a Mount Meron commission of inquiry, they do not contain a commitment to the establishment of such a commission for the submarine affair. 

Demonstrators at a protest in April in Jerusalem wear 'Investigation Now' T-shirts replete with images of submarinesCredit: Emil Salman

Bennett has not spoken out on the matter, but Sa’ar’s opposition to the commission was coordinated with the Prime Minister’s Office.

On Wednesday, Gantz’s announcement regarding the submarine affair commission of inquiry led to an exchange of accusations between him and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. Gantz stated that he had sent a draft proposal to establish the commission to the Justice and Finance Ministries, saying he planned to promote the proposal at the cabinet meeting on Sunday. However, Sa'ar’s office said it had never received the document.

Gantz’s office repeatedly claimed that the draft had been passed on to the Justice Ministry, following coordination talks between the two governmental agencies. 

Sa'ar’s office slammed the defense minister in response: “This conduct of rushing to release press announcements about proposals before any discussion, any coordination, and any staff work is unprofessional and unacceptable. This hurry and lack of proper discussion, even before the appointment of the previous national commission of inquiry decided on only this week, to investigate the Mount Meron disaster, is unacceptable. The justice minister intends to maintain proper work procedures.”

In November, during the previous administration's term, Gantz announced the formation of a commission of inquiry into the submarine affair.

However, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered that the panel hold off on starting work, saying it would overlap with the criminal investigation into the affair. The members of the commission all resigned after Mendelblit made it clear that it would not be able to speak to suspects or address its criminal aspects.

The so-called submarine affair centers around claims that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened to buy more submarines from Germany, against the security establishment's position. It involves an agreement with Germany’s ThyssenKrupp to buy submarines and patrol boats; the latter would protect Israel’s natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean. At issue in these deals, worth 1.5 billion euros and 430 million euros, respectively, are the dealings between top Israeli officials and ThyssenKrupp’s representative in Israel. Senior IDF officers, public officials and a number of people close to Netanyahu are suspected of demanding and receiving bribes to advance the deals with ThyssenKrupp.

The Movement for Quality Government filed a petition in June, asking the court to order Mendelblit to open a criminal investigation against Netanyahu on suspicions surrounding the purchase of submarines and missile corvettes from Thyssenkrupp five years ago.

In October, in the state’s response to that petition, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit informed the High Court of Justice that there was no reasonable basis for opening an investigation against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the so-called “submarine affair.”

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