Analysis

Submarine Graft Scandal Is Warning Shot to Pentagon Over Military Deals With Israel

Arrest of Netanyahu associates in multimillion deals with German shipbuilder suggests PM’s senses are not particularly sharp when it comes to picking allies

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avriel Bar Yosef (top), David Shimron (center) and Michael Ganor (bottom).

The rules governing the publication of suspects’ names in alleged criminal offenses meant a 24-hour delay before the identity of some of the senior officials questioned in connection with the submarines graft case could be revealed.

But by reading between the lines of initial reports after the first wave of arrests on Monday, we could have guessed what became official on Tuesday: those arrested were names who have been connected to the affair from the very beginning – David Shimron, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal lawyer; the former commander of the Israel Navy, Vice Admiral (res.) Eliezer Marom; businessman Michael Ganor; and Brig. Gen. (res.) Avriel Ben-Yosef, who was Netanyahu’s candidate to head the National Security Council.

Despite the efforts to scale down and dilute the extent of the affair in recent months, the first sessions in Judge Einat Ron’s courtroom made clear the seriousness of the alleged offenses under investigation.

The police and prosecution are examining suspicions of bribery and fraud with regard to huge deals by the navy involving one of Israel’s most significant strategic capabilities. The main figures under investigation are the top players in Israel’s business and military world.

It is doubtful the suspects’ many titles, or their vast network of connections, will make much of an impression on Judge Ron – herself a colonel in the reserves who was once chief military prosecutor (under the former military advocate general and current attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, at the end of her term).

The fact that former navy chief Marom was detained and his bank accounts frozen is a precedent in itself. There probably has never been another case in this country in which such a highly placed commander was accused of corruption.

And in the security establishment, concern was heard Tuesday that Marom is not the only officer of his rank who will be questioned under caution in the affair, which concerns deals for Germany to sell Israel three submarines and several naval boats.

Marom and Bar-Yosef were surrounded by a group of longtime generals offering personal support, even if they themselves were not involved in the offenses of which the two are suspected.

The suspects in the submarine graft case

One of the reasons the investigation began was following a complaint filed by the good-governance watchdog group Ometz of suspicions of corruption against Bar-Yosef. At that time, at least two retired generals tried to persuade the group’s leaders to leave Bar-Yosef alone because he was a good, guy, one of us.

At the same time, the possible implications of the affair overseas cannot be overlooked.

Last month, Germany’s federal security council approved the deals with Israel, but added a clause allowing purchases to be voided in case corruption could be shown.

And we can imagine how the Pentagon will look at deals with the Defense Ministry and Israeli security industries, based on reports from the investigations. The Americans tend to take an extremely dim view of corruption suspicions in arms deals. The result might be much more extensive than what is being discussed at this point.

The prime minister, as his spokesmen constantly reiterate, is suspected of no wrongdoing – that, after all, was the wording of the official statement by the prosecution in the affair.

But the flames are definitely licking at those close to him, from his lawyer and confidant Shimron to Bar-Yosef, whom Netanyahu wanted to promote to head Israel’s National Security Council last year.

Netanyahu and Shimron both claim that the premier had no idea his personal lawyer was also representing Ganor, who was an intermediary in the deals with German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp. This claim requires a great deal of faith in the sincerity and integrity of both men.

Somehow, it seems that Netanyahu’s olfactory sense is not particularly sharp when it comes to picking his people; nor his awareness of their actions after he appoints them.

In the past few years alone, his close associates Ari Harow, Perach Lerner, Natan Eshel and Gil Shefer have become embroiled in criminal or disciplinary investigations, and now Shimron and Bar-Yosef join that list.

The plan for Bar-Yosef to head the NSC, which was taken off the table once the investigation against him was launched last year, was surprising in real time to some. It seems Netanyahu was aware of the objections of at least three senior former members of the NSC concerning Bar-Yosef’s suitability.

Bar-Yosef understands submarines, ships and natural gas deals (he was the former chief of the Israel Navy’s equipment division), and it’s possible his understanding in these areas is what advanced the idea for his appointment.

The investigation and arrest raise sad thoughts about the NSC, which Netanyahu rightly established at the end of his first term in office in 1999. Despite several reports by investigative panels and the State Comptroller’s Office, the council has not been able to take off. Indeed, Netanyahu seems to want to keep it as his personal political council, devoid of any real powers in its contacts with other security and political bodies.

This is evidenced by the long saga concerning the appointment of an NSC leader since Yossi Cohen was appointed Mossad chief in January 2016.

First Bar-Yosef’s potential appointment was quashed; then came Yaakov Nagel (who was acting head of the council and refused to accept a permanent appointment). This April, Eitan Ben-David was appointed new acting head of the council.

Two weeks ago, Netanyahu decided to appoint the current head of the southern district of the Shin Bet security service (known as M.) as the next council head. But then it transpired that the appointment would be for only six months, after which it would be decided whether to make it permanent.

This does not seem the most suitable way to shore up the status of a troubled state entity.

Without reference to progress in the criminal investigation (and the police are hinting that it is expected to branch out and include additional serious allegations), it is clear that the entire way the navy does its purchasing will require new, extensive scrutiny.

Zigzagging between positions, lack of coordination between various agencies, questions as to alleged criminal conduct of some of those involved – all will require a thorough examination of the decision-making process that led to the transactions worth billions of euros.

As in other cases, a weakness stands out of oversight and monitoring by all those who should have been gatekeepers for the public, to ensure the process is clean.

Neither the IDF top brass, the Defense Ministry, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, nor the ministerial committee that examines such purchases, looked deeply into these deals and raised a red flag in real time.

Ultimately, complaints filed by citizens and investigations by journalists were needed for the prosecution and the police to belatedly start to figure out what was going on, in a way that might eventually lead to legal judgment being meted out to those responsible.