Analysis

The Submarine Corruption Affair Resurfaces With a Critical Netanyahu Testimony

When Netanyahu finally testifies in the case, the main question will be: Was he aware of the severe conflicts of interest of his closest associates?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

After the police submitted evidence in the lavish-gifts and the Yedioth Ahronoth quid-pro-quo affairs, and as a storm gathers over the Bezeq-Walla case, it appears the submarine affair will return to the headlines this week. Television news reported over the weekend that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be questioned for the first time about the submarines affair this week.

The submarine case has the potential to be the most serious of all the corruption affairs, for two reasons. First, unlike the other cases, it concerns national security, and possibly taking a cut out of the defense budget at the expense of the military’s needs.

Second, if the suspicions can be proved even Netanyahu’s most dedicated supporters will find them hard to dismiss as harassment on the part of the police, the state prosecution and a hostile media. Even in the flexible world of Israeli political values, enriching oneself at the expense of soldiers is still an unforgiveable moral lapse.

But we are far from any such conclusion, even if the weekly demonstrators in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva have drawn a straight line between all the separate dots at for their own convenience. During the entire period of the maritime investigations, which Raviv Drucker exposed to the public on Channel 10 News in November 2016 (and which must have begun a few months earlier), Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit took a cautious and almost passive approach toward any involvement by Netanyahu.

First, Mendelblit took his time deciding to open a criminal investigation. A year ago, the State Prosecutor’s Office took the unusual step of announcing that Netanyahu was not a suspect in the case. Only now it turns out that Netanyahu will be questioned on the affair, and it is not at all certain whether he will be questioned as a possible suspect, or only as a witness.

Even if Netanyahu is not directly involved, the investigations have caused casualties around him. David Shimron, a cousin and his personal lawyer, is the main suspect in the submarine affair; Shimron has had to keep his distance from Netanyahu. Isaac Molho, Shimron’s law partner and Netanyahu’s special envoy for the peace process has been questioned as a suspect and was forced to resign his official government role.

Avriel Bar Yosef, deputy national security adviser and Netanyahu’s pick to head the National Security Council, is a main suspect and saw his appointment canceled.

David Sharan, who was briefly Netanyahu’s bureau chief, was arrested and questioned together with a number of people close to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and former Israel Navy commander Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliezer Marom. Without minimizing the importance of the other cases against Netanyahu, no other affair has brought so many senior military and government officials to police interrogation rooms.

The submarine and affair encompasses many allegations. These include changes to the desired size of Israel’s submarine fleet (here it is likely that Netanyahu’s defense based on professional disagreements on the matter will hold water); surprising changes in the bid process, until the cancellation of the tender and signing of an agreement with German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems; attempts by Shimron and ThyssenKrupp’s representative in Israel, Michael Ganor, who has turned state’s evidence in the case, to take control of the enormous maintenance budget for the vessels; and a very strange sub-affair in which Israel told Germany it did not object to the sale of advanced submarines to Egypt, meaning Israel was willing to surrender its qualitative military advantage over its southern neighbor.

Additional developments could be in the offing. The deeper the investigations go, the more likely they are to reveal other improprieties and corruption that could jeopardize agreements signed with Germany for the supply of ships and submarines and postpone delivery to the navy.

Second, as far as is known, the investigation has not yet addressed the possibility that the naval deals are somehow indirectly related to questions that for years have surrounded the natural-gas framework agreement. That, even though some of the suspects in the submarine affair (Bar Yosef and Steinitz’s aides in particular) are suspected of having links to the gas industry.

In addition, the navy was rewarded with larger and more expensive ships because they were rebranded as ships for defending Israel’s maritime exclusive economic zone and the defense of the offshore gas platforms.

When Netanyahu finally testifies in the case, the main question will be: Was he aware of the severe conflict of interest his two lawyers/advisers faced in their dealings over the ships? Since the affair hit the news, both Netanyahu and Shimron have insisted the answer is no.

Even if Netanyahu can keep his distance from these suspicions, the next question is how is it that so many of the people he has surrounded himself with have managed to get into trouble in recent years — and Netanyahu is always the last to know?