It was a bit of a surprise earlier this year when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he planned to appoint a former National Security Council official to a senior defense position the same man detained Tuesday on suspicion of crimes relating to bribery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust.
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Actually, the doubts weren’t about the integrity of the man (whose name may not be published), because at the time nothing incriminating had come out against him. The questions were about his suitability for the job.
People in other security agencies said Netanyahu’s candidate didn’t have enough experience and would have a hard time giving the prime minister independent opinions or challenging the view in Netanyahu’s office when necessary. Actually, these may have been the qualities that endeared him to the prime minister.
Between Netanyahu’s announcement and the cabinet meeting at which the appointment was to be approved, the Ometz good-government group filed a complaint against the candidate following a serious complaint that it had received. The movement’s chairman, Aryeh Avneri, who was hospitalized at the time, sent letters to the attorney general and the state comptroller demanding that the allegations be checked.
The two were slow to respond to Avneri’s pressure to open a police investigation and suspend the appointment. Avneri died a few weeks later. Later, the candidate told Netanyahu that he no longer sought the job because the investigation was taking so long.
The police said Tuesday that the former official was suspected of having used his National Security Council position to further the interests of a friend a businessman who lives abroad. The official was allegedly paid in return.
The police investigation also raises questions about the appointment process in Netanyahu’s office. How was someone now suspected of serious crimes who was already of doubtful suitability a candidate for such a senior position?
In such appointments, the cabinet basically acts as a rubber stamp, and there’s no doubt the appointment would have been approved had it come to a vote. If not for the last-minute intervention of Avneri and Ometz, we can assume that this embarrassment would have been exposed only later. This foul-up just adds to the atmosphere in the country’s most important office, where people come and then abruptly resign with great frequency.
The police investigation touches on a jumble of interests at the most sensitive intersections of the country’s political and security elite. The foreign businessman is allegedly linked to attempts to push through very large transactions related both to Israel’s offshore natural-gas discoveries, the submarines purchased from Germany and the ships the navy plans to buy to guard these precious waters.
Some of the names being mentioned, who are acquaintances of the former official (but who are at this stage not suspects), are intimately linked to key state officials.
This case therefore triggers important questions. Is there a connection between the professional opinions received and adopted by Netanyahu (who isn’t a suspect here) on the natural gas industry and the interests of any of the suspects? Also, who hoped to profit from the gas deals? Finally, was the effort to sell the navy specific vessels and not others connected to the allegations being probed now?
The investigation’s progress will obviously depend on the quality of the evidence the police collect. On Tuesday the probe went up a notch, with the detention of the former official and a woman linked to him. The police may have lifted a rock from under which emerge scandals concerning large sums of money and top officials’ decisions on security and economic projects.