Analysis |

In Wake of Submarine Affair, Lonely World May Await Netanyahu

The submarine probe may lose the Israeli premier his closest confidant, money man and partner in political scheming. This would be a blow to his ability to function.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu and Shimron are in a submarine underwater. Mendelblit stands on top of it in a diver's suit, knocking.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

At the end of the day, sometimes in the literal sense, after the politicians are supplanted by others or they retire, after the prime minister’s chief of staff and advisers are ignored, forced to quit and in general are tossed out like disposable dishes – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains with three individuals whom he trusts implicitly, fortified human bunkers, as it were, in whom he has total confidence. It’s only with them that he feels comfortable enough to lower all the masks. Only they can be entrusted with the most sensitive national, diplomatic, political and personal secrets.

They will never betray him, change their spots, badmouth him in the media, defect to the enemy. And not only because they are men of honor, integrity and morality. They won’t do that because the law forbids them to. As long as they want to go on practicing their professions, they will have to keep their mouths zipped. The law is Netanyahu’s protective armor, his insurance policy against regrettable personal blunders of the kind that have appeared in abundance during his long career.

The The Israeli submarine scandal: What we know

The three are attorneys David Shimron and Isaac Molho, and Netanyahu’s personal physician, Dr. Tzvi (Herman) Berkovich. They are the true “confidants,” the closest and most loyal advisers. Protected and blocked by lawyer-client and doctor-patient confidentiality, Shimron, Molho and Berkovich have become, over the years, the keepers of the secrets of Netanyahu and his wife. They come and go at the Balfour St. residence in Jerusalem almost like the permanent occupants do, at all hours, on short notice, under the most intimate and dramatic circumstances. Indeed, drama is not lacking there.

Molho is the diplomatic envoy, the man of clandestine missions who is privy to the most secret information and intelligence – those to which even most cabinet ministers don’t have access. Berkovich, in addition to being the prime minister’s personal physician, also serves as psychologist when necessary, an interlocutor for conversations during the wee hours, an attentive ear and a supportive shoulder. A doctor who’s also a friend and a friend who’s also a doctor. Shimron is Netanyahu’s private money man, his partner in political machinations and party intrigues, his liaison to ministers, during coalition negotiations and in connection to state comptroller reports.

The boss knows that Shimron can be trusted to give businesslike advice, free of extraneous considerations; that his information will always be reliable and accurate; that the messages he’s asked to deliver will reach their destination verbatim, without embellishment. Netanyahu trusts him 1,000 percent, blindly, even if this is inconsistent with his suspicious, paranoid approach to everything that moves or breathes.

Unlike Molho, who has never given an interview, and Berkovich, who does so rarely and only in order to defend Mrs. Netanyahu, when Shimron is dispatched to the TV studios to defend the couple from the frequent misfortunes that befall them, he responds obediently. In that sense, he provides a service, like the electrician from Or Akiva whose terms of employment in the Netanyahus’ private residence in Caesarea were cited in a state comptroller’s report.

Shimron’s public appearances on behalf of the Netanyahus do not always go smoothly. Sometimes he finds himself humiliated in a live broadcast when confronted with solid facts. Sometimes only the passage of time proves him wrong, as happened recently in the case of V15, an organization that sought Netanyahu’s defeat in the last election and whose connections with Zionist Union/Labor were afterward proved to be nonexistent.

Shimron led a press conference held by senior Likud figures at the height of that election campaign, in which serious allegations were hurled at Zionist Union heads Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni for activating the organization as a secret arm of the party, in breach of the law. Among those who took part in the media event were MKs Yariv Levin, Ofir Akunis, Miri Regev and Tzipi Hotovely (three of whom are now ministers and one a deputy minister). Shimron accorded validity and judicial gravitas to what State Comptroller Joseph Shapira (whose appointment Shimron initiated, and one that he may regret) later termed arrant nonsense.

David Shimron in 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod

Shimron is also a relative of Netanyahu, a second cousin. They’ve known each other since the prime minister’s biological and political childhood. For all of these reasons, the account provided by the two of them, according to which Netanyahu didn’t know the first thing about Shimron’s involvement in the purchase of the submarines from Germany and his representation of the shipyard (or its agent in Israel) sounds, on first hearing, strange.

Furthermore, the evidence that was served up almost every evening this week by Raviv Drucker, the Channel 10 News reporter who uncovered the affair, added layer upon layer of shadow and doubt on the claims made by the Netanyahu-Shimron duo. Every new report by Drucker refuted another claim they had made, pulled yet another brick out of the wall that the prime minister and his attorney built with so much toil against the media.

Devilish haste

On Monday, Netanyahu, in heavy makeup, came to the weekly meeting of the Likud Knesset faction. He wore a forced smile, one that seemed to be connected to concrete, physical pain. With the fake smile never leaving his face, he delivered a declaration in which he branded the media the “industry of despondency” and accused it of “floating balloons” intended “to besmirch the face of Israel.” In the same breath, he added the opposition to this package. That offers the best of both worlds: by blaming the left for everything, he also unites his supporters. Moreover, he advised lawmakers – and not necessarily those in the opposition – who may be longing for his departure from the political arena, to calm down, since he intends to be here a long time yet. A few of the MKs applauded. A woman’s laughter was heard in the background, possibly that of Miri Regev.

The one person who didn’t seem calm was Netanyahu. People who are confident of themselves and certain of their power don’t need to announce it publicly. Netanyahu’s haughty words were a cover for a lack of confidence and unease.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the saying goes. Netanyahu’s rule may not be absolute – we still have an investigative press and public watchdogs and functioning judicial and law-enforcement systems – but at the end of seven-and-a-half consecutive years as prime minister, he is definitely approaching that stage. In terms of his state of mind, he’s totally there already, as any journalist who attended his briefings last summer saw for himself.

The boundaries have become blurred. Private interest has begun to coincide with national interest; it’s hard to know where the one ends and the other begins. It starts with trivialities like recycling bottles and taking the money for your own personal use, furniture that got confused between the addresses of the official residence in Jerusalem and the private mansion in Caesarea, abuse of hardscrabble workers in the residence, and a spendthrift approach to state coffers when it comes to payment for official trips abroad. It ends with the current (prima facie) scandal in which a lawyer who is totally identified with the prime minister represents an Israeli macher who works in the service of a German shipyard and in both its name, and that of the macher, goes to the head of the Histadrut labor federation and to the Defense Ministry and allegedly tries to expedite procedures and torpedo tenders concerning an issue as critical as the purchase of submarines.

What is a reasonable person supposed to think when attorney Shimron knocks on the door or calls? That in a top-priority matter involving national security and strategy, relating to a deal worth tens of billions of shekels, the attorney who is working for the German firm that manufactures and sells these vessels to Israel has not coordinated his moves with the prime minister? Is doing things on his own? Are we in la-la-land? Hollywood?

Still, Netanyahu deserves the right to be considered innocent until proven otherwise. There’s no need to assert that he’s “corrupt,” as MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) did this week in the Knesset with her characteristic arrogance. Shaffir isn’t yet a court of law. But there’s no doubt that an investigation is called for, to disperse the stench that’s building up and to clarify to the public whether we are dealing here with innocent mistakes, with someone who is turning a blind eye, or with something much more serious – even if it’s totally unreasonable to think that the prime minister promoted a submarine deal with a German firm to beef up his confidant’s bank account to the tune of a few million euros.

It’s also not fair to blame Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit for waiting a full week before ordering a “police inquiry” — that malodorous euphemism reserved for politicians – into the affair surrounding the purchase of the subs from Germany. That’s a reasonable delay. But one can certainly question the haste with which he rushed to tell the media a few days ago that there were no grounds for an investigation. What was the rush? In that instance, haste was of the devil. Somebody may yet suspect that Mendelblit initially sought to bury a case with the potential to become a real Pandora’s box, in an effort to deter people who are involved and have inside information from going to the police.

For the prime minister, this may turn out to be one entanglement too many. It joins a sea of other open cases connected to finances, some of them still under wraps, involving him and Sara. An investigation of Shimron is the closest possible thing to an investigation of the prime minister himself. It’s within spitting distance of Netanyahu’s official residence and of the Prime Minister’s Office, with all their deep secrets.

The possibility that Shimron could be removed from daily involvement in the private and financial affairs of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu – and from many other political, coalition, intra-party and state comptroller issues, such as the ongoing affair of the underground tunnels discovered in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – could be a very serious blow to Netanyahu’s ability to function.

The comments heard from cabinet ministers and heads of coalition parties on Wednesday night, after the attorney general’s announcement about the police inquest, were tinged with melancholy thoughts about the lifespan of the current government. Some wondered privately whether Netanyahu would seek to dissolve the government and call early an election in order to head off the investigation. Two even said they pitied him. That’s not the kind of thing you hear very often. It’s usually they who depict themselves as deserving pity in the face of his deeds.

The current affair is added to the comptroller’s report on the Gaza tunnels, due to be published soon, which is not – according to reports – expected to improve the prime minister’s mood.

The new imbroglio weakens Netanyahu politically. It places him in a vulnerable and complex situation in the face of ministers who can’t stand him and will not hesitate to advance themselves at his expense. Take the case of the new public broadcasting corporation, whose fate is supposed to be decided next week. When Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), who has changed his original stance, which was a tendency to forgo the whole enterprise, and Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkoren, from the Labor Party, meet with Netanyahu on this subject – they will encounter a vexed, apprehensive prime minister whose thoughts lie elsewhere. He will find it difficult to give them directives. If until a week ago killing of the corporation topped the list of Netanyahu’s missions, things have now changed.

Another thing that has changed involves the relations between Netanyahu and Shimron. From the moment a police inquiry was launched, they are limited in their ability to speak privately or by phone, without being suspected of committing some sort of ostensible offense of subverting legal processes and coordinating their accounts in the case. They will have to display extreme caution, which at least one side, at least until now, has not shown.

Ahaz Ben-Ari.Credit: Shiran Granot

Full circle

On the morning of May 18, 1996, the then-new premier, Netanyahu, and the director general of Likud, Avigdor Lieberman, entered the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Netanyahu instructed Lieberman, soon to be tapped as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, to carry out a rapid and thorough purge of people in key positions there, including experts who were not politically identified with the Rabin and Peres governments, and to replace them with Likud functionaries.

The first to be axed was the independent and highly regarded legal adviser in the ministry, attorney Ahaz Ben-Ari, a colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves. “We want someone who thinks like us,” Lieberman told Ben-Ari when he asked him to leave quietly, without making a fuss.

Ben-Ari, realizing that this was an offer he could not refuse, left. Afterward, he held various public-sector posts, including legal adviser to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality. In 2007 he was appointed legal adviser to the Defense Ministry. Last May, in the wake of Yisrael Beiteinu’s co-option to the coalition, he got a new boss, one Avigdor Lieberman. Ben-Ari will soon reach retirement age of 67.

On Tuesday evening, on Channel 10 News, Raviv Drucker launched yet another torpedo in the case of the German submarines. He revealed the content of an email sent by Ben-Ari on July 22, 2014, to the Defense Ministry’s director general at the time, Maj. Gen. (res.) Dan Harel. That was the day on which the international tender for the purchase of ships to protect Israel’s maritime gas rigs was issued.

In the email, Ben-Ari reported to Harel about a phone call he had just received from a top lawyer: “Attorney David Shimron, who represents the German firm, called me to find out whether we are halting the tender processes in order to negotiate with his clients, as was requested of us by the prime minister,” Ben-Ari wrote at the time. .

Shimron confirmed to Channel 10 that the conversation with Ben-Ari took place, but claimed he had not mentioned the prime minister in it. Netanyahu’s bureau reiterated that Shimron had never spoken with Netanyahu about the tender.

The publication of this email, whose content completely contradicts the statements by Netanyahu and Shimron about a mutual lack of knowledge, contributed to the attorney general’s decision to order a police inquiry this week. Thus, 20 years on, whether by chance or not, a circle was closed.

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