In Submarine Affair Plaguing Netanyahu, the Egypt Angle Is Just as Murky

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Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak last May.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak last May.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and retired general Amos Gilead have a long history together. Gilead was Barak’s aide when Barak headed Military Intelligence, and when Barak headed the whole Israel Defense forces, he appointed Gilead IDF spokesman. When Barak was elected prime minister, Gilead headed Military Intelligence’s research division.

When Barak served as defense minister under Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, Gilead filled a key position at the ministry: director of policy and political-military affairs. And he was the strategy chief for regional and international affairs, as well as the defense establishment’s foreign relations.

Today, Barak and Gilead are considered the point men for the battle to investigate Israel’s so-called submarine affair – suspected improprieties by people close to Netanyahu in the navy’s acquiring of more submarines and missile ships. Barak and Gilead have submitted affidavits to the High Court of Justice as part of a petition by the Movement for Quality Government to reopen the criminal investigation into the affair – or at least order the establishment of a government inquiry commission to delve into the matter.

The submarine affair, called Case 3000 by the police, is based on suspected bribes and other suspicions surrounding the 2-billion-euro deal to buy from a German company three submarines and four missile ships; the latter would protect Israel’s offshore natural gas platforms.

But testimony to the police in the affair shows that the versions given by the two ex-generals differ greatly over a very explosive issue: the sale of submarines to Egypt by the German company. Gilead has basically claimed that Netanyahu and Barak approved the sale behind his back and despite his opinion against the sale. Barak denies this.

When Hosni Mubarak was still president of Egypt, an agreement to sell submarines to Egypt’s navy was signed with the German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. The IDF believed the deal would upset the balance of forces in the region, but Germany was adamant about the sale, saying its shipyards were in financial straits.

“One time both Bibi and I were at a kind of cabinet meeting in Berlin,” Barak said in testimony to the police on the affair. “And there, their request to sell a submarine to Egypt came up …. There was this discussion that lasted a few months before the meeting, and the person who would update me was Amos Gilead – that the Germans had requested that they supply a submarine, and Israel objected at first.

“We didn’t really have the ability to prevent them. In the end they decided, it was more a kind of moral pressure. But in the contacts with them they were pushed into a situation where they wouldn’t supply them with the same submarines they were supplying to us.”

Amos Gilead, the former head of Military Intelligence's research division, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

The Arab Spring arrived in Egypt in 2011 after its launch in Tunisia the previous December. Mubarak was deposed, and later the Muslim Brotherhood took power, headed by President Mohammed Morsi.

“I remember that the question came up then, what, have we gone crazy?” Barak said about the Egyptian submarine deal and the dawn of the new era. But the sale had already been approved.

The police investigator pressed Barak: “What if I tell you that Amos Gilead was very, very surprised that Israel gave Germany approval to sell submarines to Egypt? He knew about it only after the fact.”

“It’s surprising that he was surprised,” Barak answered. “Gilead presented his reluctant position, and gradually he updated me that there were requests from the National Security Council to change our positions …. I think that in the end the matter was exhausted during the trip by cabinet members to Germany in which I also took part … and in this meeting Israel lifted its opposition to the Germans supplying submarines to Egypt.”

A compliment, then criticism

Barak didn’t rule out the possibility that Gilead opposed the deal “for a significant part of the way,” but added: “My understanding as defense minister was that there were discussions and the positions were getting close to each other, both that of Amos versus our NSC and ours versus the Germans.

“The gaps were narrowing and at a certain stage, before the meeting, I realized that an understanding had been reached that none of the sides was happy about, but all the parties accepted it: Israel would lift its opposition to the shipyard supplying submarines to Egypt. I can’t imagine that this was a different position than that of the defense establishment.”

Barak was asked: “From your years-long acquaintance with Amos Gilead, would you describe him as a reliable person” who tells the truth?

Barak began with a compliment but then shifted to criticism. “He’s a very intelligent person. It’s very important for him to be right, even in retrospect. He was an intelligence [officer]. Intelligence officers always describe the two sides of the coin of possibilities,” Barak said.

“The listener’s ears need to distinguish where the emphasis is …. In situations where I or others understood him one way, later, when the carpet of the future was rolled out and became fact, Amos’ description in retrospect stressed the other side of the picture.”

Barak also mentioned a case that went back almost 40 years, when Gilead gave testimony as Major G. during the Sabra and Chatila investigation, after Lebanese Christian forces had massacred Palestinian civilians in Beirut during Israel’s first Lebanon war.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sitting inside a cage in a Cairo courtroom, June 2012.Credit: Stringer / Reuters

Gilead, at the time a young intelligence officer, told how he warned against letting the Christian Phalangists enter the Palestinian refugee camps: “I yelled: Are you crazy?’ Letting the Phalangists into the camps? There will be a massacre there. They’ll slaughter them.”

In Israel, the Kahan Commission, which heard Gilead’s dramatic testimony, recommended the removal of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as that of Gilead’s boss, Military Intelligence chief Yehoshua Sagi.

Barak, who replaced Sagi, told the commission: “Sagi carried in his heart a grudge against Amos, which in short was that what Major G. testified to the Kahan Commission didn’t match what Sagi as Military Intelligence chief heard from him before the act. Despite this, I took Gilead as my aide because he was very efficient.”

But Barak said he remembered, in meetings about the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and that year’s Camp David Summit with Yasser Arafat, “changes in his positions so that in retrospect, when criticism was voiced, he was always on the criticizing side and not that being criticized.”

Regarding the submarine affair, Gilead testified that the Germans were the ones to tell him about Israel’s approval to sell submarines to Egypt. He described a conversation he had with Christoph Heusgen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief adviser on foreign and security policy.

“Why is Germany endangering Israel’s security and selling Egypt submarines?” Gilead said he asked Heusgen, who reportedly answered: “You don’t seem to be up-to-date. The Israeli defense establishment gave the green light.”

This dramatic discovery had a dramatic second chapter, Gilead said. He testified that Barak phoned him when he was on an official visit to Germany, where the sale of submarines to Egypt was among the topics discussed.

“This is what he told me: ‘In a little while I’m supposed to meet with the German defense minister and I heard you were angry at me concerning the German submarines to Egypt,’” Gilead said.

“My answer to Barak was: ‘I’m very angry, but I don’t want to elaborate on it on a telephone that’s listened to by at least 20 intelligence services.’ He told me: ‘I order you to tell me on the phone what it’s about.’ I answered him: ‘I refuse. It’s too sensitive.’ He told me: ‘It’s an order.’ I gave him the details of my anger over the wrong decision, in my opinion.

“He told me that he was surprised and that he’d look into it. I told him: ‘What are you surprised about? After all, you approved it.’ He told me he would look into it when he returned to Israel, but I knew he wouldn’t. I also didn’t ask him about the matter. I had the data in my hands.”

ThyssenKrupp submarines being built in Kiel, Germany, 2013.Credit: Carten Rehder / AFP

Gilead's version

When Barak was confronted with Gilead’s comments, he said: “I don’t know this story. Such a conversation isn’t a routine thing, that you order a senior staff official against his judgment to tell you such details. I don’t remember such a conversation. If it happened, I would remember it …. It’s unimaginable that I agreed with the prime minister on this matter without contacts with Amos and the NSC beforehand, and I definitely remember there were such things.”

Gilead told Haaretz this week that Barak never consulted with him before approval was given to the Germans. He also denied the claim that Israel couldn’t keep Germany from selling the submarines to Egypt.

“They may not have a legal obligation, but a wonderful woman has stood at the head of Germany in recent years, a woman of principles, who has an enormous commitment to protecting the existence of the Jewish people and preventing a second Holocaust, so she decided in practice that there would be no transfer of weapons in the region without Israel’s agreement,” he said.

In 2014, the German government wanted to approve the sale of two more submarines to Egypt. Netanyahu’s green light to Merkel provided his opponents with ammunition. This time too, claims of concealment were made: Netanyahu approved the submarine deal behind the backs of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and other senior defense officials.

“This time too I opposed it,” Gilead said in his affidavit to the High Court. “On one of my visits to Germany, in March 2015, I was informed that it had been decided to carry out the deal to sell the ThyssenKrupp submarines to Egypt. I was very surprised to discover … information that left me shocked …. That same day I reported to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon through my aide … and again when I returned to Israel.

“Ya’alon was surprised and shocked, and he met twice with Mr. Netanyahu, who denied he had given such approval …. The fact that Netanyahu gave such approval to the Germans without any decision-making process, while this approval was hidden from the commander of the navy, the [IDF] chief of staff, the defense minister and the Mossad chief … was most serious.”

Ya’alon confirmed what Gilead said. In an affidavit submitted to the High Court, he wrote: “Mr. Gilead told me that to the best of his knowledge, an Israeli official notified the Germans that Israel had changed its mind and it had lifted its opposition to the sale of advanced submarines to Egypt. I remember that Mr. Gilead was very agitated over this matter.”

A National Security Council document from 2015 states that senior German officials reported that they had met with Gilead. The officials said they had understood that in return for expanding the deal with Egypt, Germany would take part in the building of the missile ships to protect Israel’s maritime economic zone. According to people who saw the document, it said: “Amos did not express opposition.”

“It’s completely baseless,” Gilead said when asked by Haaretz if this really happened. “In my opinion, no senior or junior German [official] said these things. No one from the NSC took part in the meeting I held with the Germans, and I never ... dealt with this matter at all [the maritime economic zone] in the context of the sale of submarines to Egypt.

“I staunchly opposed the sale of the German submarines to Egypt, and I think to this day that it was a serious mistake, because you don’t know what the future holds, and in this context, I’ll remind you, for example, of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power.”

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