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What Does Netanyahu Have to Hide in the Submarine Affair?

By appointing a committee to probe the purchase of navy vessels from Germany, Gantz has pushed Netanyahu into a corner

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walks on the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in the Haifa port, January 12, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walks on the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in the Haifa port, January 12, 2016.Credit: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

On Sunday evening, after a series of unnecessary delays, Defense Minister Benny Gantz finally announced the appointment of a government commission of inquiry, on behalf of the Defense Ministry, to review Israel’s procurement of submarines and patrol boats from Germany. But at least it seems that the time was used to clearly define the committee’s powers.

For Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which is battling to retain what is left of its base of support, this provides an opportunity to create significant headaches for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is evident from the outraged responses of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

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The key phrase in the letter of appointment that Gantz sent the committee’s chairman, retired Judge Amnon Straschnov, appears near the top of the first page. It says the panel will examine “the conduct of the defense establishment and of all the parties involved in the process of making decisions about the procurement process.”

This enables Straschnov to summon for questioning individuals from outside of the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces, including the prime minister, members of the National Security Council and Netanyahu’s cousin and personal attorney, David Shimron. The second page of the letter also authorizes the committee to summon any individual who has information about the issues under investigation.

The committee cannot force witnesses to appear before it. But the very fact of inviting Netanyahu to appear would embarrass him. Assuming he refuses, he would look like someone who seeks to avoid getting to the truth. And the same is true if he forbids members of his staff to appear.

Moreover, Kahol Lavan can wage a battle within the cabinet to expand the committee’s powers, as was done for the Winograd Commission, which investigated the Second Lebanon War of 2006. That panel received the power to subpoena witnesses. And here, too, if Netanyahu objects, he will look as if he has something to hide.

Netanyahu and his supporters have until now barricaded themselves behind Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit (whom they loathe on every other issue), citing his decision that there were no grounds even to open a criminal investigation against the prime minister in this case. But now, there is something to probe regarding the submarines and missile boats, even if it isn’t a criminal investigation.

It’s unlikely that the anti-Netanyahu protesters, who include many retired senior officers, will be satisfied with this. But at least the new committee, at long last, provides a starting point.

Straschnov and his colleagues on the committee, former Israel Navy commander Abraham Ben-Shoshan and Yael Grill, former director of purchasing in the Prime Minister’s Office, have one advantage: All have already retired from the defense establishment.

Straschnov, a brigadier general in the reserves, was once the military advocate general, in which capacity he was Mendelblit’s commander. Grill filled senior positions in both the Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office. None of them is hoping for another job.

People in this stage in their careers are often more interested in leaving their mark than in currying favor with anyone. The question is whether this will be enough to move the investigation forward, given the obstacles Likud plans to throw in its way.

Gantz has been debating over whether to appoint the committee for a long time in light of Netanyahu’s threats. The report by Israel Channel 12 television news on his expected decision last week led him to postpone the announcement by three days.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, during the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, during the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020.Credit: ADINA VALMAN / KNESSET SPOKESPER

In the meantime, the weekend brought an eyebrow-raising deal with Netanyahu on the appointment of a director general for the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office in exchange for the appointment of a new Finance Ministry accountant general. That sparked harsh criticism of Gantz from his own political base and may have left him no choice but to move ahead on the submarine inquiry.

Gantz, like many members of the political establishment, surely believes there’s a good chance that Netanyahu will call an early election in March, thereby cynically violating his agreement to rotate the prime minister’s job with Gantz. Will the former military chief of staff choose to meet his fate with his head held high?

Kahol Lavan has plenty of ways to embitter Likud’s life in the Knesset in the coming weeks should it choose to do so. And after all, Netanyahu and his supporters certainly won’t sit quietly during this time.

That was clear from Public Security Minister Amir Ohana’s swift response to Gantz’s announcement. Ohana said he plans to set up his own inquiry committee into Fifth Dimension – a company formerly chaired by Gantz that was awarded a contract with the Israel Police without a bidding process.

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