Analysis |

Torn Bennett Is Missing in Action in Decision to Probe Netanyahu-era Submarine Case

For a prime minister like Bennett, sitting on the fence isn’t a model of leadership. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has another big (and expensive) problem that he has brought on himself

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, this month.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Veteran ministers who have served in several governments had trouble Sunday night recalling a case where the prime minister abstained on a resolution he himself brought to a vote, much less one on a national security issue as important as the procurement of submarines and missile ships.

Sometimes ministers play both sides of the fence and decide not to decide. But for the country’s leader, abstaining isn’t an option.

Did he not have any opinion in the cabinet vote? After all, he’s the one most familiar with the classified defense, intelligence, political and diplomatic material. If there are grounds for an inquiry, he should support it. If there aren’t, he should oppose it. Sitting on the fence, especially on such a major issue, isn’t a model of leadership.

“I listened attentively to Minister [Ayelet] Shaked’s arguments,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in explaining his decision. If so, he was convinced by lame arguments.

“A government shouldn’t investigate its predecessor,” Shaked said. But it isn’t the government that’s investigating, nor is it the government that will appoint the commission of inquiry. The Supreme Court president will appoint it, and its five members will investigate and publish their conclusions – quickly, we hope.

Shaked didn’t actually mention her real reason. She’s ultra-conservative. Her opposition to the commission flows from the same wellspring from which she derives her most significant “anti”: She's against a bill that would bar a criminal defendant from forming a government. “Bureaucrats must not be the ones to decide,” she says.

For her, politicians are immune to all criticism, all oversight, all investigation. Even judges are a species of bureaucrat.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, left, at the Knesset, last Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This is the second state commission of inquiry that the Bennett-Lapid government has established in its seven months in office. That’s no small thing. On the other hand, not a single commission into any issue was set up over the previous 12 years. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently shares Shaked’s views.

His predecessors never feared creating commissions of inquiry that would investigate them. Golda Meir formed the Agranat Commission after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Ehud Olmert formed the Winograd Commission after the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Ehud Barak formed the Or Commission after the police killed 13 people during the Arab riots of October 2000. Yitzhak Rabin formed the Shamgar Commission after a Jewish gunman massacred Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.

The prevailing assessment before the vote was that more than one person would vote no. But even the waverers – rightist ministers Zeev Elkin, Matan Kahana and Yoaz Hendel – ultimately decided to vote in favor of the commission.

Hendel, a populist, had announced earlier that he would vote yes only if a commission of inquiry were also established on the “loss of governability” in the Negev – regarding relations with the Bedouin community. The main thing was getting at least a fraction of a headline.

This commission has no criminal implications; no additional indictments will emerge from its conclusions. But the report it releases could be one of the most important in the country’s history.

The highest-ranking subject of the inquiry, Netanyahu, is the son of a historian and a history buff himself. Once he leaves public life, he’ll undoubtedly be keen to burnish his legacy. Harsh findings could tarnish him and cast a heavy shadow over his tenure and fitness for the job.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) walks on the German-built "Rahav" submarine, the fifth in the fleet, in the Haifa port, January 2016.Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

Netanyahu will soon have to find lawyers with expertise in commissions of inquiry. They're among the leading – and most expensive – attorneys on the market, which will further burden the family’s bank account. And his attention will be fixed on yet another arena that isn’t the Knesset.

No one should be surprised if his fans launch another crowdfunding campaign for him. And fools will presumably be found to donate.

Netanyahu is undoubtedly acquiring experience regarding the old adage that trouble comes in threes. But what’s troubling him most is the realization that he brought all this unpleasantness on himself.

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