Analysis

Israel's Submarine Affair: A Pandora's Box That Netanyahu Might Elude

Sources say the investigation might spill over into non-defense procurement, but Netanyahu isn't in the danger zone yet

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

The state’s-witness agreement expected to signed by the police and the intermediary in the submarine- and ship-purchase deal reflects directly on at least two key suspects: Big. Gen. (res.) Avriel Bar-Yosef, who was once Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s choice to head the National Security Council, and former navy chief Eliezer Marom.

The intermediary, Michael Ganor, and Bar-Yosef are close friends and are suspected of improperly promoting Israel’s acquisition of submarines and other naval vessels from Germany. Marom is also suspected of involvement in striving to drop the previous Israeli representative of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, as well as of accepting a bribe from the shipbuilder.

The well-timed leak Monday was certainly intended to pressure others cooperating with the investigation. Although the report made politicians and defense officials nervous, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on the prime minister. The claim that David Shimron — who has been an attorney both to Ganor and Netanyahu (separately) — was permitted to go to the United States only so he wouldn’t interfere with the police-Ganor deal seems baseless. Any interference by Shimron in the affair would send him right back to house arrest, at the least.

At this point it seems that any developments in the case are happening at least a level or two away from Netanyahu. The prime minister took the trouble to emphasize, in an unusual nighttime interview on Channel 20, that he has never met Ganor. It seems that most of the affairs coming to light in recent days rely on wishful thinking more than facts.

At the moment there’s no known proof of a direct connection between Netanyahu and Ganor; it’s hard to believe that Shimron, cautious by nature, would boast to his client Ganor about Netanyahu’s involvement in contacts. And even if Ganor would testify that he heard about Netanyahu’s involvement from his attorney, this would only be hearsay. Stronger evidence would be needed to implicate Netanyahu.

None of this detracts from the seriousness of the affair. According to police and legal sources close to the investigation, a much larger Pandora’s box could open involving huge defense deals, not necessarily limited to the navy — and this might also cross into nondefense procurement.

So there’s now an opportunity to clean out the barn. Also needed, along with the criminal investigation, will be a deep examination of the methods of defense deals in which dozens of retired senior officers mediate between the state and companies in Israel and abroad — and reap the benefits of doing so.

Additional officers who have procured for the navy are soon to be questioned in the affair. Marom’s successor as navy chief (and his adversary for many years), Maj Gen. Ram Rothberg, is expected to be questioned under caution; that is, he may be considered a suspect.

If such questioning takes place, it would come as a surprise to many people. Rothberg is considered by former colleagues on the General Staff as honest and matter-of-fact. Either way, the investigation will expand and the police will have to bolster their team of investigators with people from the national fraud squad.

The prime minister’s close aides, and after them his partners in the governing coalition, are trying to channel the media discussion on the submarine affair and Netanyahu to one question: criminal or not. In this narrow test, it seems Netanyahu isn’t in the danger zone yet.

But focusing on this – just like the tendency of Netanyahu’s opponents to exaggerate Netanyahu’s alleged criminal involvement – ignores other contexts that directly touch on Netanyahu. Already clear is that the decision-making process was twisted regarding deals worth billions of euros. At the same time, suspicions are emerging that the National Security Council maintained a channel that bypassed the navy, the defense minister and the chief of staff.

In both these matters, Netanyahu should provide detailed answers, just as it would be good to hear from him why he didn’t bother checking into how his attorneys make their living and whether their actions put them (and indirectly him) in a conflict of interests. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is only giving answers on his Facebook page and Channel 20, where there’s no one to ask the relevant questions.