Israel Greenlights Commission of Inquiry Into Netanyahu-era Purchase of Submarines, Navy Ships

PM Bennett abstains ■ This is the second national commission formed by Bennett's government ■ Commission to probe deals discussed between 2009 and 2016

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in the Haifa port in 2016.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in the Haifa port in 2016.Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel's cabinet approved on Sunday the establishment of a long-anticipated commission of inquiry into the procurement of submarines and surface vessels, following the high-profile corruption scandal involving associates of ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chose to abstain, explaining that procurement procedures today are “clean and serious.” Bennett, who had delayed the vote by a week until the completion of a deal to purchase additional submarines from the German corporation ThyssenKrupp, warned against weaponizing the commission "to intensify division and hatred."

According to the proposal of Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the commission will examine how a deal for the purchase of three submarines, four defensive surface vessels and two anti-submarine vessels from ThyssenKrupp was advanced between 2009 and 2016. 

The commission will also examine an attempt, which was blocked, to transfer responsibility for maintaining the submarines from the navy’s shipyards to the German corporation. A further topic of investigation will be how Israel’s consent was given for the sale of advanced German submarines to Egypt.

As for Bennett's fellow Yamina party ministers, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked opted to vote against the probe, while Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana voted for the proposal. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who drafted the proposal with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, said there is "no choice" but to push ahead with the state inquiry for the "interest of protecting state security."

In the cabinet meeting, Sa'ar quoted a High Court ruling to explain his support for the establishment of the probe: “Questions are still floating above that may overshadow the propriety of decision making in the realm of the purchase of the vessels,” the July ruling stated.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz praised the decision as "a clear message you can't play games with Israel's security."

The proposal says “the commission will determine findings and conclusions regarding all the aspects pertaining to the conduct of political echelon decision-makers, including the interface and sharing of information between them and the defense establishment and the National Security Council, before and during the process.” It continues: “Various political decisions accompanying this process will be investigated, including conduct vis-à-vis external agencies.” Due to the sensitivity of the data presented to the commission, many of its discussions will be held in camera, and there may not be a public report at the end of its work. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut will appoint the commission’s members and chairman.

Bennett has objected to the establishment of such a commission, lest it foil a deal for purchasing three additional submarines. Last week the deal was approved, but Bennett’s associates said he still doesn’t see the point of investigating moves taken years ago, during the tenure of the previous government. They added, however, that he would come to Sunday’s cabinet meeting with an open mind. Coalition sources said Bennett has reservations over a commission of inquiry since he doesn’t want to be depicted to be seeking revenge against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Investigating the procurement of the naval vessels is a red flag for Netanyahu. Even though the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, clarified that there were no suspicions of criminal wrongdoing by the former prime minister in the submarine deals, the names of some of Netanyahu’s close associates were linked to the earlier deal. David Sharan, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, has been accused of bribery and breach of trust, along with Avriel Bar-Yosef, whom Netanyahu wanted to appoint to head the National Security Council. Netanyahu’s lawyer, David Shimron, was suspected of mediating a bribery deal, but his case was closed after a hearing. The former prime minister admitted he approved the sale of submarines to Egypt without informing the defense minister and IDF chief of staff. The demand to investigate this affair took center stage in the protest movement against Netanyahu.

The commission, if appointed, will do its work at the same time as criminal proceedings in this case (Case 3000) go forward, and will not investigate the conduct of the accused in that case. Last May, indictments were filed against seven of the people involved in the deal with ThyssenKrupp, including Bar-Yosef and Sharan. Michael Ganor, who was ThyssenKrupp’s representative in Israel, was accused of bribery after pulling out of a deal to be a state witness. Bribery charges were also brought against former cabinet member Eliezer (Modi) Zandberg, Shay Brosh, a former commander of Israel’s navy commandos, Rami Tayeb, an adviser to former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, and Tzachi Lieber, a strategic adviser. A case against another suspect, former navy commander Eliezer Marom, has been closed.

Last week, the deal to purchase additional submarines from ThyssenKrupp was sealed. Israel will pay 2.4 billion euros (8.6 billion shekels), with the German government paying an additional 600 million euros. According to diplomatic sources, the German government recently informed Israel that it had changed its view and would not pull back from a deal if it turned out its advancement had been tainted in the past by corruption. After the deal was signed, Bennett taunted Netanyahu in an announcement: “Since the establishment of this government, we have taken care to operate with integrity and professionalism in everything relating to Israel’s arms procurement.”

On Saturday, Gantz talked to former defense establishment officials who are partners to the call of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel to investigate this matter. “I want to stress that I am not driven by personal motives but as Israel’s defense minister, out of a critical national need,” said Gantz. “For me, this commission will achieve two things. It will produce its findings and the truth, as a result of which it will be clear that security will not be subject to machinations, and it will prove that we are a democratic country that monitors what takes place within its borders.”

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