Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced on Sunday that he has established a governmental commission of inquiry into Israel's procurement of submarines and other naval vessels in the so-called "submarine affair."
Gantz's Kahol Lavan party sees the naming of a commission of inquiry as a way to pressure Netanyahu over his attitude towards the party, his refusal to pass the state budget, the freezing of senior appointments and his constant threat of an early election.
The submarine affair has become a central element in the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where demonstrators have carried inflatable submarines inscribed with slogans like “S.S. Investigation.” Protesters are calling for a commission of inquiry into the affair, as well as calling on Netanyahu to step down in light of his corruption charges.
The commission has been granted a four-month timeframe and it is anticipated that it will begin its activities within one to two weeks. Its deliberations will not be classified and will be made available to the general public.
The commission has been tasked with examining the defense establishment's procurement procedures with respect to the Sa'ar 6 warships and submarines, as well as the working relationships between parties involved in procurement (e.g., the Prime Minister's Officer and the National Security Council), the Israel Defense Force's role in such procedures, and the status of any third parties and/or intermediaries involved in any transactions.
The aim of the commission is to shed light on the processes that led to the purchase of the submarines and vessels, allowing for a closer examination of procurement processes and transactions. Gantz's announcement follows his consultations with former senior members of the legal and defense establishment during the past several weeks.
On Tuesday evening, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s office issued a statement accepting Gantz’s establishment of the commission. The statement added that Mendelblit will provide legal guidance in light of the ongoing criminal investigation of Case 3000, in which several of Netanyahu’s associates are under investigation. The statement clarified that such guidance will be provided in a manner that does not obfuscate ongoing criminal proceedings.
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As was reported by Haaretz last week, the commission will be headed by retired judge Amnon Strashnov, who previously served as a Tel Aviv District Court judge, as well as a military judge and advocate. Other members include Maj. Gen. (Res.) Avraham Ben-Shoshan who served as a Navy commander and managed a procurement project during his tenure, as well as Yael Grill, who until recently served as the director of the procurement department of the Prime Minister's Office.
As previously reported, the establishment of the commission is based on a law that allows any minister to set up a commission of inquiry on issues that fall within the realm of their authority.
Unlike a military commission of inquiry, no restrictions on who can be called to testify apply to a governmental commission of inquiry. The commission can also make use of affidavits that were submitted by the Movement for Quality Government, as part of its petition to the High Court of Justice, which were signed by a series of former senior members of the defense establishment who have personal knowledge of how naval deals are made.
Political leaders and parties across the spectrum were quick to react to Gantz's announcement on Tuesday.
Netanyahu's Likud said in a statement: "Only four months ago Gantz said there's no reason to investigate the matter since even the attorney general 'found there's no reason to launch a probe into the affair.'
"What has changed in four months? Gantz is failing to rise from the ashes in the polls so he is [bringing back the] submarines story to garner votes while his party is busy with inner quarrels," the statement read. "The Israeli public is smart and reads through their tricks. It's better that Kahol Lavan joins the government in its effort to save the lives of Israeli citizens and obtain [coronavirus] vaccines instead of dealing with futile political stunts."
Coaltion Whip Miki Zohar said, "Gantz's decision to establish a commission of inquiry on the submarines matter is an act of defiance against Likud. Gantz knows that Netanyahu has no hand in the matter, and still he's acting to slander Netanyahu while endangering the coalition. This is just another bit of proof that Gantz is forcefully dragging Israel into an election at the height of a crisis instead of aiding the prime minister's efforts to bring vaccines to Israeli citizens."
Yesh Atid-Telem lawmaker Moshe Ya'alon welcomed Gantz's decision to establish the commission of inquiry. "If the committee lacks the power to obligate Netanyahu and others to testify before it, there will be no escape from exhausting the criminal investigation and/or establishing a state commission of inquiry. Only a comprehensive and thorough investigation, without cutting corners and pre-conditions, will bring the truth to light," Ya'alon wrote on Twitter.
Lawmaker Tehila Friedman of Kahol Lavan wrote on Twitter that Gantz's decision is "necessary and important. The questions and doubts concerning matters that should not be questioned or doubted are eating away at us from the inside."
Also taking to Twitter, lawmaker Shlomo Karhi of Likud wrote that Gantz is like clay in the hands of the potter, and "is being molded everyday by someone else, whether it's Nissenkorn, attorneys general or the media."
The Movement for Quality Government responded, "A commission of inquiry under ministry auspices cannot replace a state commission of inquiry into the submarine case. Fulfill your duty."
A long time coming
The affair centers around claims that 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.
After over a month of deliberating whether to establish a commission of inquiry, the straw that broke the camel’s back for Gantz’s people were statements made by Netanyahu’s associates this week, including the claim by one of his advisers that fulfillment of the rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz in a year depended on the defense minister’s behavior.
There are those who believe that Mendelblit let Netanyahu off the hook too quickly when he decided not to question the premier in the case. Netanyahu has been acting very concerned every time the possibility of an inquiry has come up. Gantz had planned on announcing the establishment of the commission last week, but postponed his announcement due to a Channel 12 news report that came out on the matter last week.
In October, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud annulled a Knesset vote that approved a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the submarine affair. The Knesset held an electronic vote, and a majority of Knesset members approved opening the commission. Coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud claimed that he had demanded a roll-call vote rather than an electronic one, and that his electronic vote did not register. Levin then annulled the results of the vote, saying that the first vote had either not been announced or was said "softly." The measure was shot down in a second vote.