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Threats to Netanyahu's Regime Continue to Amass

Though Israel's legal authorities are still reluctant to open a criminal probe, Netanyahu's submarine affair also has a military angle that warrants an army examination.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out of the Rahav, a submarine widely believed to be capable of firing nuclear missiles, Haifa, Israel, January 12, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out of the Rahav, a submarine widely believed to be capable of firing nuclear missiles, Haifa, Israel, January 12, 2016.Credit: Baz Ratner, Reuters
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

One of the most popular clichés in Israeli politics is attributed to Simcha Ehrlich, then effectively Menachem Begin’s deputy in the Likud. Asked if he followed Begin blindly, he replied affirmatively, but with one minor reservation: “Sometimes I open one eye for a moment, to make sure he’s leading me with his eyes open.”

Wide open eyes should be used to scrutinize the blind trust that is supposed to manage Benjamin Netanyahu’s assets as long as he’s prime minister. Netanyahu’s representative for this purpose is attorney David Shimron. Every two or three years, Shimron gripes that his cousin’s lengthy tenure in office is liable to prove costly – not to Israel’s citizens, but to his relative/client. Since spring 2009, when Netanyahu’s portfolio was frozen, there have been many changes in the global economy; consequently, Netanyahu is likely to lose money, Shimron argues.

>> Submarine scandal: What we know so far

Last year, the State Comptroller’s Office accepted this argument, and Shimron was permitted to alter the portfolio. Experts said this permission extended only to macro changes, not micro ones. For instance, changing the portfolio’s risk profile would be okay, but not selling a specific stock or buying another – say, ThyssenKrupp, from which Israel buys submarines.

What exactly happened to Netanyahu’s portfolio in late 2015? Two people know. One is State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, who isn’t dealing with the issue because he’s waiting to see what Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will do: If there’s any suspicion that a crime was committed, that’s the purview of the attorney general, police and prosecution.

The other is Mendelblit, who, for an entire week, until Wednesday evening, stood by his master, for unknown reasons. Only he and his inner circle know the truth. One possible solution to the riddle: An explosive development, one that would overshadow the submarine issue, is imminent in one of the various other probes of Netanyahu, and Mendelblit is girding his loins to summon the prime minister for interrogation as a suspect. He restrained himself, refusing to respond to criticism, so as not to reveal the breakthrough prematurely.

The real suspicion

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.Credit: Mark Israel Salem

But that’s a tactical consideration which doesn’t address the substantive problem, because the real suspicion of a conflict of interests isn’t centered on Shimron, the servant of two masters, Netanyahu and ThyssenKrupp representative Miki Ganor. If the problem were just Shimron and his conflict-of-interests agreement, the police wouldn’t need Mendelblit’s approval to question him. The real suspicion that must be probed revolves around Netanyahu and the rules for preventing conflicts of interests among ministers.

Those rules define “relative” quite broadly, as “any person in whose financial situation the minister has an interest.” That could well include Netanyahu’s cousin, Shimron. The contract between Netanyahu and Shimron’s law firm should be made public, so that the public can see for itself whether the client has an interest in the financial health of his personal lawyer, or perhaps vice versa.

The rules also state that even the appearance of a conflict of interests can be illegal. Thus if Netanyahu’s decision about the submarines were unassailable, that’s one thing, even if Shimron would inadvertently benefit from it financially. But if there’s any doubt about the validity of his considerations in favor of the deal, that creates the appearance of a conflict of interests. And to determine that this apparent conflict of interests isn’t a real one, a police investigation is needed (and would already have happened had this issue arisen before summer 2013, when Moshe Lador was still state prosecutor and Yoav Segalovich still headed the police’s investigations and intelligence department).

The submarine affair also has two military angles that the military advocate general should examine to determine whether a Military Police investigation is needed. First, army regulations impose severe restrictions, for many reasons, on meetings between foreign suppliers and Israel Defense Forces personnel, whether soldiers or civilian employees of the IDF. The MAG should look into whether ThyssenKrupp’s meetings with civilian employees of the navy’s shipyard, whose operations the German company was interested in acquiring if they were privatized, deviated from these limits.

The second military angle relates to the purchase of missile boats to protect Israel’s gas fields, an issue on which the positions taken by the navy, the Defense Ministry and the Netanyahu government all changed. The final result was that the tender ultimately suited ThyssenKrupp’s capabilities. Perhaps this was just coincidence, but the IDF must not allow even the appearance of corruption to cling to its weapons purchases. And it can’t rely on Mendelblit, who was dragged against his will into a probe he didn’t want, to ensure that these issues, too, are scrutinized.

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