Analysis |

Submarine Affair Shows How Netanyahu Imposed His Will on Israel's Defense Establishment

New information makes it hard to accept the prime minister's denials. But opening a police inquiry doesn’t ensure the truth will come to light.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A new submarine built for the Israeli Navy at the ThyssenKrupp shipyard in Kiel, Germany, April 25, 2013.
A new submarine built for the Israeli Navy at the ThyssenKrupp shipyard in Kiel, Germany, April 25, 2013. Credit: Carsten Rehder, AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Following several days’ unnecessary delay, and despite efforts by the Prime Minister’s Office to prevent it, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit made the required decision on Wednesday to open a police inquiry into Israel’s acquisition of submarines and gunboats.

Earlier this week, Mendelblit had insisted an investigation was unwarranted. The Justice Ministry explained his U-turn with a laconic statement about “new information received by the police today.” Nevertheless, this is still just an inquiry – that preliminary check invented especially for suspicions about the prime minister and other well-connected people.

The Israeli submarine scandal: What we know

Mendelblit’s decision came several hours after the Movement for Quality Government in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice to demand that he launch an investigation, amid growing questions by jurists as to why he was tarrying. The stream of media revelations about the involvement of David Shimron, Netanyahu’s personal attorney, in the submarine purchase and his connections with the German shipyard ThyssenKrupp raised suspicions of conflicts of interest in Netanyahu’s inner circle.

Channel 10’s report this week that Shimron had spoken with Defense Ministry legal adviser Ahaz Ben-Ari about the missile boat tender presumably left Mendelblit with little choice. Once Ben-Ari’s email reporting the incident in real time was discovered, it became hard to accept Shimron’s and Netanyahu’s denials.

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

Nevertheless, as Haaretz reported last week, it seems the new suspicions are also connected to a different issue, which is already the subject of a criminal investigation: Suspicions of bribe-taking and breach of trust by Brig. Gen. (res.) Avriel Bar-Yosef, whom Netanyahu almost appointed as head of the National Security Council. Bar-Yosef is suspected of bribery in relation to the government’s deal with the natural gas companies, but he was also involved in purchases by the navy, and was close to some of the people involved buying submarines and missile ships from Germany.

The opening of a police inquiry doesn’t ensure the truth will come to light. There are 1,001 ways to drag out an investigation. Nevertheless, there are critical questions that must be answered: Wasn’t there a conflict of interests between Shimron’s work for ThyssenKrupp’s Israeli representative and his work for Netanyahu, for which his fee has never been disclosed? Did he really tell Netanyahu nothing about the matter, as both men claim? Was the prime minister really unaware of it? Were state secrets utilized to earn huge profits for private citizens, including former senior officers?

These questions are doubly important because the vessels in question are among the most expensive (and important) in the army’s possession.

The missile boat tender in which Shimron allegedly intervened underwent many twists and turns. Several key people involved in it told Haaretz that the need for vessels to protect Israel’s gas fields was identified back in 2012, when Ehud Barak was defense minister and Udi Shani the ministry’s director general.

The initial plan was to buy the boats from ThyssenKrupp (which also makes the Dolphin submarines), but Barak and Shani decided to look into buying elsewhere. Senior ministry officials went to South Korea to explore buying lighter boats than ThyssenKrupp makes.

David Shimron, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ahaz Ben-Ari, Dan Harel.Credit: Moti Milrod, Olivieh Fitoussi, Eyal Toueg, Sasson Tiram.

When the tender was finally published, shipyards from South Korea, Italy and Spain bid. ThyssenKrupp did not. But in 2014 (when Moshe Ya’alon was defense minister and Dan Harel the ministry’s director general), Netanyahu and his National Security Council pushed to cancel the tender and resume talks with ThyssenKrupp. Netanyahu and the NSC (of which Bar-Yosef was then deputy chairman) argued that diplomatic considerations mandated buying from Germany, and that ThyssenKrupp could be brought to provide a better price.

Ya’alon’s associates said then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told them his German counterpart had said ThyssenKrupp would lower the price by 7 percent. Ya’alon doubted this. He also feared becoming a “captive client” of the German shipyard. He and Netanyahu had a fierce argument over this issue, which repeated itself the following year over the submarine deal. Shimron’s call to Ben-Ari coincided with Netanyahu’s appeal to Ya’alon.

Some Defense Ministry staffers opposed canceling the tender, both because Israel would look unreliable to the other bidders and because they questioned whether changes in the boats’ operational specifications had been thought through. But in the end, Netanyahu imposed his will on the defense establishment. His bureau says this decision was approved by the military.

In late 2014, the tender bids were submitted, but no winner was announced. Instead Israel used the bids to get ThyssenKrupp to lower its price. And in 2015, Israel signed a deal to buy the four boats from Germany.

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