Ex-defense Chief vs. Netanyahu: I Opposed Buying More Submarines, Deal Should Be Probed

Netanyahu pushed to include two anti-submarine boats in disputed deal with German firm, but Moshe Ya'alon rejected the proposal as having no operational purpose.

Netanyahu, Ya'alon and Gantz on board a German-made Israeli submarine, 2014.
Rami Shllush

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially intended to expand a deal with the German shipyards to include two anti-submarine boats as well as three additional submarines, which would have brought Israel's submarine total to nine.

Netanyahu expressed his intention to purchase the two extra boats in discussions on the submarine deal during the past year. This option was removed from the table following discussions with then Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who said there was no operational need for the boats. The defense establishment and the Israel Defense Forces also said there was no need to increase Israel's submarine fleet, but only to replace the older submarines when they were decommissioned close to 2030. 

Ya'alon made his first public comment on the issue on Thursday evening, claiming that he had "vigorously opposed" increasing the country's submarine fleet with three additional subs, and saying that they were not needed at the time "for operational, organizational and economic reasons" and would not be needed in the coming years.

"My position was also based on professional, thorough and comprehensive staff work performed by the IDF and the Defense Ministry," said Ya'alon, who stepped down as defense minister in late May. "I don't know what was done and what was signed after I left the Defense Ministry." Ya'alon said that the recent reports, starting with those by Channel 10, were "very disturbing and require a comprehensive investigation by the relevant parties."

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit asked State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan Thursday to explore whether to launch a probe of the submarine affair. Law enforcement officials are expected to scrutinize the agreement reached with Netanyahu regarding matters of possible conflict of interest to see whether he contravened its restrictions in the periods in question.

On Tuesday, Channel 10 reported that Netanyahu’s attorney David Shimron also represents an Israeli businessman named Miki Ganor, who works for the German shipyard building the submarines at issue. An opposition MK contended the deal raises the suspicion that it involved a conflict of interests and breach of trust on the part of Netanyahu.

On Wednesday the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement on behalf of the National Security Council saying that the purchase of German submarines “was done in an orderly and professional process with no outside influence and with the recommendation of all the professional bodies in the security establishment.”

The IDF spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the submarine deal consisted of "a future purchase, in more than a decade, of three submarines to replace ones that grew old."

The spokesman said the IDF told the cabinet of its needs some three weeks ago at a recent discussion regarding the purchase of the new submarines.

In 2014 the IDF decommissioned two boats that had been converted to anti-submarine warfare and equipped in the 90s with 90 anti-submarine torpedo missiles. One of these boats was sunk as part of a navy drill in July. "There's no need for more anti-submarine boats. Against whom will they be used, Hamas fishermen?" the source asked. He said there was no demand in the navy for such boats.

A senior navy officer told Haaretz two weeks ago that "Israel has no intention of having seven, eight or nine submarines. When the agreement is signed in Germany, the new subs will replace the older ones."

He said Israel had set the submarines' operating lifespan at 30 years. 

According to a senior Navy officer, the decision on this matter will be made only when the sixth submarine, due in 2019, arrives. The military top brass and politicians had disagreements about this submarine too. Various sources said that then Navy Commander Vice Admiral Eli Marom and Chief of Staff Eli Ashkenazi objected to buying the sixth submarine due to budgetary restraints, but then Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided to act on the option to buy another, sixth submarine.

Ma'ariv reported Wednesday that Shimron and Ganor were involved in the sixth submarine deal as well.