Analysis |

Why the Submarine Probe Will Be a Whole Different Ballgame for Netanyahu

As opposed to his corruption trial, Netanyahu will find it harder to intimidate those who will have to rule on the submarine affair ■ Recent accident underscores the problem in Israel’s commando units

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset this month
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset this monthCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

With the temporary respite in the talks about a possible plea bargain for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has returned to our lives with another fear-mongering video about the coronavirus pandemic. Scare tactics have served Netanyahu well throughout his public career, but the dangers that now lurk for him are too potent to be obscured by diversionary maneuvering.

The continuation of his criminal trial on corruption charges is expected to produce testimony that would be problematic for his defense (a prospect that was his primary consideration in sending out feelers about a plea bargain). Nor should one make light of the threat awaiting him in the cabinet’s decision last Sunday to establish a state commission of inquiry into Israel’s purchase of submarines and other naval vessels from Germany.

In contrast to the steps that he has taken with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the prosecution and even with the panel of district court judges trying his case, when it comes to the submarine affair, Netanyahu will have a hard time intimidating the commission members who will be judging his conduct. The members of the commission – who have not yet been appointed – will for the most part be retirees from the judiciary and the defense establishment who do not tend to yield to scare tactics.

In addition, the number of people who are willing to take to the streets on his behalf is dwindling as time passes since he left the Prime Minister’s Office. And in the submarine case, he is only one of the players and not necessarily the primary one (despite the passionate belief in the protest movement that arose against him). It should also be noted that lawyers who specialize in appearing before investigative committees are known to demand particularly high fees.

Once again, Netanyahu has mainly himself to blame. His stubborn insistence on wrecking the rotation agreement for prime minister with Benny Gantz is what brought him to his present political reality, stuck in the opposition as battles to succeed him are already being fought around him. And during the tenure of the last Netanyahu government, Gantz had intended to make do with a government committee of inquiry, which has narrower powers.

The obstacles created by Netanyahu, and by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit from the other side, delayed the establishment of the panel, but it has now rebounded in a more powerful incarnation as a state commission of inquiry with considerable authority.

It would be a mistake for the commission to focus only on the involvement of Netanyahu and his associates in their decision-making (along with suspicions regarding the profits that they generated). A central piece of the case, and one that requires extensive investigation, concerns the way in which senior navy personnel, both past and present, recruited the entire defense establishment on a comprehensive procurement campaign that was not in keeping with earlier plans.

In an article in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz over the past week, Dr. Ariel Livneh, who conducted an independent investigation into the affair, wrote that senior navy officers have said that the strategist behind the procurement plan, Brig. Gen. (res.) Avriel Bar-Yosef, should have a statue erected in his honor at naval headquarters in gratitude for his work. Bar-Yosef, a former head of the navy’s procurement division and deputy director of the National Security Council, has been indicted in the case along with the middleman in the transactions, Miki Ganor.

It was only the eruption of a secondary affair that is indirectly linked to the broader submarine case that prevented Netanyahu from following through with his decision to appoint Bar-Yosef as his national security adviser five years ago.

Without belittling the suspicions of corruption hanging over a number of senior navy officers and several associates of Netanyahu and of former minister Yuval Steinitz, a central piece of the inquiry will have to deal with the problematic procurement procedures at the Defense Ministry. When the members of the commission are being appointed, it will be necessary to ascertain that they have no indirect connection with the transactions that are being investigated.

Against this backdrop, an interesting anecdote was recounted by Maj. Gen. (Res.) Guy Tzur in an affidavit submitted by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel in its effort to have a commission of inquiry established. Tzur was head of planning at Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff at the beginning of the last decade. He recounted that he asked at a meeting for information about a $1 billion supplement that had been promised to the IDF as part of the military assistance provided by the United States.

He was surprised to discover that a decision had already been made on the matter and that the additional sum would be directed to pay for the purchase of additional F-35 aircraft. The money was “designated” without Tzur or the members of the General Staff forum even having been informed.

A convenient scapegoat

The team of experts that examined this month’s fatal friendly-fire accident in the Egoz commando unit will probably submit its report within the next week. The team appointed by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon is still investigating the causes of the disaster, in which two company commanders, Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar, were killed.

It is already clear that a considerable part of the team’s work will focus on the operational culture, particularly discipline, in the commando brigade (of which Egoz is a part), as well as the special units and the infantry more generally.

Some of these issues were dealt with by a prior Kochavi-appointed committee headed by Maj. Gen. Itay Virob following a series of accidents and mishaps in the commando brigade three years ago. It’s doubtful whether the Virob committee brought about genuine change in the special units. Indeed, some of the relevant personnel are not even acquainted with its conclusions.

The IDF, an organization with militia roots, for years has not excelled in a high level of discipline. When the recently retired chiefs of staff were asked about this, they took favorable note of the major decline in training and operational accidents compared to the abandon of the 1970s and 1980s. But in recent years, a different process seems to have been at work that the top IDF brass are not sufficiently aware of.

The difficulty in leaving fighters in combat units, particularly following the conclusion of training, forces commanders to compromise on the demands that they make of their troops. This is apparent when it comes to relatively veteran soldiers, whose obligations diminish as their benefits increase.

A wild culture has emerged in some companies and platoons in the battalions; whereas in special units a whole logic of justifications is espoused based on their status and rare capabilities. So junior officers in these units sometimes make a mistaken distinction between routine discipline and operational discipline. Purportedly there’s no need to be strict about routine discipline because the soldiers are smart enough and talented enough to accept operational discipline from the moment that they set out on a mission.

All of this is indirectly related to the declining status of the ground forces and their units. If professionalism was their determining ethos, in some places it has been gradually supplanted – through a change that developed from the bottom up – by the sanctification of slogans about initiative and tenacity, at the expense of discipline and meticulous attention to detail. When one adds pretentious talk of holy wars and defending sovereignty into this dubious mix, the final result is liable to spell disaster.

The alternate explanation offered by senior IDF officers on the day after the Egoz incident – to the effect that the two subgroups that shot at each other had set out to search for lost night-vision equipment – sounds less convincing. It’s more likely that what took place was an unplanned and unauthorized pursuit of Bedouin, on the suspicion that they had stolen equipment.

Much of the discussion in the IDF in the past two weeks has been focused on speculation about the future of the commander of Egoz, Lt. Col. E. The prevailing view is that he – a recipient of a major general’s citation for bravery in Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip 13 years ago – will pay the price for the disaster with his career. The chaos that the commission will uncover in the unit is too large for him to be able to continue in his post, or to be promoted to colonel as the commander of a reserve brigade this summer, as was decided upon prior to the accident.

His dismissal will mesh with the “convenient person to blame” theory that is customarily adopted in the IDF. When a serious mishap occurs, certainly when it involves fatalities, a middle ranking officer will always be fingered who is relatively far removed from the top levels of the pyramid and in whose case the disciplinary action taken does not reflect on the top brass. But the problems in the combat units are too broad and deep and broad to be attributed to one officer.

Anyone needing a reminder of this got it on Thursday morning. Two combat soldiers from an undercover Border Police unit that impersonates Arabs were lightly wounded in pursuit of smugglers along the Egyptian border. They were shot by mistake by soldiers from a Karakal infantry battalion.

Here too, the familiar mix was apparently involved: faulty coordination, mistaken identification and broad rules of engagement that the army introduced as part of its fight against Bedouin smugglers. This was yet another front in the battle for sovereignty, if you will.

In the past several days, a fascinating discussion has been underway, on Instagram of all places, on the Instagram account of Kan public broadcasting’s military reporter Roy Sharon. He posted a clip from an incident in which a platoon commander in the Golani infantry brigade is seen cursing and threatening two of his troops, who had apparently refused an order.

The comments that he is getting are illuminating. Young commanders from Golani and other brigades are telling him frankly about the reality that they have to cope with: rebellious soldiers who systematically commit disciplinary violations and over whom the command of the units have a hard time exerting authority.

The IDF has a problem, and it doesn’t begin or end with Egoz.

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