Analysis

Gantz & Co. Bet On Sleaze Factor to Make Them The Four Horsemen of Netanyahu’s Apocalypse

Besieged by his Iran-hacked phone furor, the former army commander is banking on the still-murky submarine scandal to refocus attention on his rival’s corruption — and to stop his own slide in the polls

Chairman of Kahol Lavan Benny Gantz giving a speech alongside Yair Lapid, Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 18, 2019.
שריה דיאמנט

Benny Gantz’s campaign advisers would do well to put a small pebble in one of his shoes and pray to God it irritates him immensely. For the past week, Gantz has been visibly incensed — by his strait-laced standards at least — at the unrelenting storm unleashed by the leak that Iran had hacked his phone and the ensuing organized rumor campaign about his alleged illicit dalliances. After weeks of anemic campaigning that is bleeding support for his Kahol Lavan party, Gantz’s sudden show of emotion did him a world of good. Anger, in moderate doses, becomes him.

By sheer coincidence — or crafty engineering — Gantz’s outrage just happens to coincide with the new tone of righteous indignation that his number two, Yair Lapid, has introduced in the past few days since taking control of Kahol Lavan’s election campaign. The wrath is partly contrived, in response to criticism of Gantz’s hitherto flaccid campaign, but also reflects genuine outrage at Benjamin Netanyahu’s all-out efforts to slime Gantz and his colleagues in underhanded ways that even they, who have all worked intimately with Netanyahu at one stage or another, were left dumbfounded.

Haaretz Weekly, Episode 19Haaretz

After rehearsing their roles as the Four Angry Men in several social media videos released this week, Gantz, Lapid and the two other members of their quadrumvirate (like triumvirate, only a foursome), former generals Moshe Ya'alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — who are already gruff by nature — convened a joint press conference. With 21 days left before reaching the finish line, Gantz and Co. were putting all their money on a last-ditch effort to make the sleaze factor stick to Netanyahu and finally do him real damage.

>> Israel’s submarine affair: A tale that goes from Netanyahu to gas fields to Iran ■ Why are the wheels coming off the Benny Gantz election campaign?

They did not dwell, however, on Netanyahu’s indictments, pending a formal hearing, despite the abundance of sordid details that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit provided in order to justify his expected decision to formally charge Netanyahu with bribery in one case and breach of trust in two others.

Astonishingly, perhaps, neither the expected but unprecedented indictment of a sitting prime minister, nor the embarrassing accounts of Netanyahu’s pathetic willingness to sell the store along with the kitchen sink for positive media coverage — never mind the display of the Netanyahu family’s well-known but still revolting lust to be funded by others — have hardly made a dent in the prime minister’s performance in the polls.

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav submarine, after it arrived in Haifa port, January 12, 2016.
Baz Ratner/Reuters

Instead, Gantz and his three amigos concentrated their fire on the one investigation in which Mendelblit officially — and some would say shockingly — pronounced the prime minister innocent from the outset: The so-called German submarine affair, aka Case 3000, aka the one that got away.

Seizing on new reports, hitherto undisclosed but now undenied by Netanyahu, that he made a cool 16 million shekels ($4.4 million) in 2010 from selling his stocks in a company called SeaDrift, which just happened to belong to his cousin, Nathan Milikowsky, and just happened to have made millions providing steel components to none other than ThyssenKrupp, which has in turn made billions from manufacturing Dolphin submarines for Israel.

The company made another cool billion from Netanyahu’s already controversial intervention in the decision to order a sixth Dolphin submarine, and stood to earn many more billions if Netanyahu had succeeded, according the allegations made against him, in needlessly raising the Israeli tab by another three submarines as well as four Saar-6 missile boats.

It is a case that screams conflict of interest to high heaven and which, in other democracies, would have quickly curtailed Netanyahu’s long and successful political career.

In Israeli political culture, however, only actual legal proceedings, rather than authoritative accounts of misdeeds, count for much of anything. And in an era of increasingly polarized politics and irreconcilable differences about what is reality and what is fake news, most of Netanyahu’s current supporters will stick with him anyway, come hell or high water, if only to prevent their political enemies from gloating.

Nonetheless, many senior Likudniks will bravely admit behind closed doors that something smells rotten about Netanyahu’s involvement in the submarine scandal — a point driven home this week by the financial filings provided by Netanyahu himself about his hitherto undisclosed bonanza from his cousin’s stocks.

And in a twist of irony and arguably height of chutzpah that Netanyahu would certainly fail to appreciate, said filings were made in the course of Netanyahu’s petition to allow the same steel-supplying cousin to lend Netanyahu money in order to fund his legal defense in the three criminal cases awaiting him.

Despite his estimated worth of 50 million shekels — including the moola he made from selling cousin Nathan’s stocks — Netanyahu told a government panel that self-funding his legal defense would leave him destitute.

One by one on Tuesday, Gantz and his colleagues stood up before the press to recount their personal encounters — Ya’alon as defense minister, Lapid as finance minister and Gantz and Ashkenazi as army chiefs of staff — with what they now described as Netanyahu’s suspicious if not incriminating behavior in connection with the purchase of the submarines.

They demanded that Netanyahu explain, and in any case be investigated for, his decision to force the army to buy a sixth submarine it didn’t need; his unilateral decision, also opposed by the defense establishment, to order four missile boats to protect Israel’s offshore gas installations; his clandestine but quickly retracted attempt to order three additional submarines, which raised a royal ruckus when it became known; his still inexplicable consent to Germany supplying Egypt with similar top-class submarines; and, the jackpot question: How is it at all rational to believe Netanyahu’s assertion that he knew nothing of the extensive submarine skullduggery of his closest personal aides, including his close cousin and personal lawyer David Shimron, who made a mint off of the submarine orders and now face criminal trials on varying charges of fraud, corruption and bribes.

After flashing his newfound indignation in response to questions about his hacked phone, Gantz declared that the submarine affair is “the worst corruption scandal in the history of Israel” — an assessment shared by much of the defense establishment. He vowed that once in power he would establish a judicial commission of inquiry to fully investigate the allegations against Netanyahu. He might have added that if his submarine strategy won’t work, he will be in no position to establish anything anyway.

Once again, the righteously indignant assault on Netanyahu is a political ploy meant to deflect the media’s attention away from Gantz’s phone furor and to refocus them on the last-minute and hopefully damning revelations about Netanyahu’s role in the submarine snafu.

But the anger wasn’t all feigned: Gantz, Ashkenazi, Lapid and especially Ya’alon, whose protests against Netanyahu’s meddling in the submarine affair precipitated his resignation three years ago from the Defense Ministry, were all personally enraged by what they perceived as Netanyahu’s blatant deception and their exclusion from the decision-making process about the purchase of submarines.

Gantz’s wager on the submarine affair is predicated on the nearly universal assumption among Netanyahu’s fans and foes alike that despite the attorney general’s decisions, much remains unknown about the prime minister’s role in the submarine affair. Doubts about the attorney general’s decision to declare Netanyahu innocent before the police investigation had started in earnest still linger, bolstered now by the revelation of Netanyahu’s personal if possibly indirect windfall from the submarine business. One popular rationale is affairs of state: Germany had reportedly warned Israel that if Netanyahu were implicated, the submarine deal would be off. In Israel, security matters still trump all else.

Nonetheless, the prospects that the smell of corruption — never mind actual indictments — could undo Netanyahu and crown Gantz and his partners as the Four Horsemen of Netanyahu’s Personal Apocalypse are slim, at best.

Netanyahu has not only weathered the attorney general’s damning evidence of his miserliness, greed and pathological obsession with the media. He is, one must never forget, a maestro of political maneuvers, while Gantz is a total rookie.

A few minutes before the press conference, Netanyahu released another blistering attack on his supposedly inexperienced and leftist rival, including the humdinger: “If he can’t protect his own phone, how will he protect the country?” In the audio recording, Netanyahu and his minions can be heard burst out laughing. For Netanyahu’s avid supporters, one biting jab at the enemy is worth all the corruption in the world.

This article was amended on 19.03.2019 to reflect a correction in the familial relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Nathan Milikowsky.