Analysis

The Submarine Affair: A Clueless Netanyahu Is Just as Bad as a Complicit One

The deeper the investigators dig, the more suspects they find in senior positions in the security establishment, the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and in Netanyahu’s inner circle

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu onboard the Rahav, the fifth submarine in Israel's fleet, after it arrived in Haifa from Germany in January.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Inside the large building housing the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on the first floor, is a small, even more protected area. Transparent glass walls separate it from the rest of the structure, giving it its nickname, the “aquarium.” That is where the prime minister meets with all his top advisers, and also where the security cabinet meets. In the “aquarium,” at the end of the hallway, in the last office on the right, the desk closest to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office belonged for more than a year and a half to David Sharan, who was arrested Sunday on suspicion of taking a bribe in the submarine affair. The latter is shaping up as the most serious corruption affair in the history of the state.

Sharan was Netanyahu’s chief of staff and one of the people closest to him. He was responsible for the prime minister’s schedule, he took phone calls and filtered them, he said who got through Netanyahu’s door and when. He sat in on sensitive meetings, was exposed to classified material and attended political meetings. At a certain point Netanyahu informed Sharan that he intended to give him the senior post of cabinet secretary, but backtracked at the last minute. To this day the reason he did so is not entirely clear. Not long ago, Netanyahu was even considering making Sharan civil service commissioner – the regulator of all public service in this country.

David Sharan, former chief of staff for Israeli PM Netanyahu, was arrested September 3, 2017 in 'submarine affair.'
Tomer Appelbaum

Sharan is the third close associate of Netanyahu suspected of involvement in corruption in the submarine affair. Before him came Netanyahu’s personal attorney, David Shimron, considered Netanyahu and his wife Sara’s go-to man for political and personal matters, and Brig. Gen. (res.) Avriel Bar-Yosef, one of the main suspects in the affair. Netanyahu had planned to appoint Bar-Yosef to the high-ranking and sensitive position of National Security Council head.

Bar-Yosef and Sharan have known each other for a long time, since back when Bar-Yosef was the director of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Sharan was political adviser to that committee’s chairman, MK Yuval Steinitz. A few years later, they both served together in senior positions in Netanyahu’s bureau.

In November 2016, after the submarine affair was brought to light by Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit quickly announced that the affair involved no suspicion of criminal acts. Among Netanyahu’s mouthpieces in the media there were some who also declared that “the ceremony was over,” that there was no corruption or bribery in the affair, that it was all a fabrication. Today, it’s clear that at best, these remarks were hasty, and at worst, simply foolishness. Not only is the ceremony not over, it’s at its height.

The more sewage water flowed to the sea, the clearer it became that there is not one suspicion of criminality but many suspicions, which just keep multiplying, piling up and getting stronger. There are suspicions of bribery, suspicions of fraud and suspicions of corruption to the extent of harming state security. The deeper the investigators dig, the more suspects they find in senior positions in the security establishment, the National Security Council in the Prime Minister’s Office and in Netanyahu’s inner circle.

Avriel Bar-Yosef.
Daniel Bar-On / Ginni

Last February, when Mendelblit finally ordered a criminal investigation launched in the affair, he stressed that the prime minister himself was not a suspect. Indeed so far there is no evidence that Netanyahu was involved, in knowledge or action, directly or indirectly – in the alleged corruption of his three close associates in the submarine affair. However, the accumulation of suspects among people in his bureau and inner circle raises disturbing questions about Netanyahu’s conduct in the most sensitive issues of national security.

If Netanyahu knew about Shimron’s involvement in the submarine deals, or the alleged connections between Bar-Yosef and Michael Ganor – the middleman in the submarine affair – then this is a case of suspected offenses that violate ethical standards. On the other hand, if this whole affair took place behind Netanyahu’s back, then the prime minister doesn’t know what’s going on around him, and surrounded himself unknowingly with a bunch of allegedly corrupt people, appointing them to the highest and most sensitive positions in government. It’s hard to decide which of these possibilities is worse.