Analysis

Israel's Submarine Affair Was Already Serious. Then Netanyahu Opened a Pandora's Box

Many former security officials describe the affair as the most significant corruption scandal Israel has known. When Netanyahu asked to raise funds for his legal defense, the plot thickened

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with the U.S. secretary of state, the Greek prime minister and the Cypriot president in Jerusalem, March 20, 2019.
JIM YOUNG / POOL / AFP

The current escalation in the security situation is taking place as the election campaign enters its final lap. The spike in the number of violent incidents enables the opposition to accuse the government of not protecting its citizens, but so far the opposition is not taking charge of the political agenda. Perhaps the public in Israel is inured to these incidents. It’s also possible that despite the establishment of a party with three former chiefs of staff (and one military correspondent), voters are not yet convinced that the Kahol Lavan party has better solutions for the security situation than the incumbent government has.

In the past, this column has maintained that the last few elections were decided on the basis of the sense of security felt by voters. The second intifada heightened anxieties and, accordingly, increased suspicion of and hatred towards Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu won, again and again, because he convinced a large number of Israelis that he would be cautious in making diplomatic concessions but resolute in fighting terrorism, while at the same time being less eager than his predecessor Ehud Olmert in rushing into unnecessary wars. Even some of Netanyahu’s political rivals are willing to quietly praise him for his restraint in using military force.

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But this election is different than previous ones. It is being largely conducted as a referendum on the character of the prime minister. Attitudes towards Netanyahu have split Israeli society in two, with a fervor similar to what is happening around President Donald Trump in the U.S. Over the last 10 days, heavy guns have been brought out to ostensibly help the two major contenders. First was the alleged hacking by Iran of Benny Gantz’s mobile phone, followed by new revelations in the submarines affair. In both cases, much spin was built around a set of facts.

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In interviews given for the first time this week to TV channels, Gantz did not deny the earlier, Channel 12 News report about his hacked phone. He repeated that no sensitive information was compromised and that he is not subject to extortion. Right-wing propagandists, professionals as well as volunteers, are spreading rumors about embarrassing personal information that was on the phone. Likud campaign headquarters went one step further, arguing that the hacking proved that Iran wants Gantz to win. How does that add up? Perhaps the Likud’s video clips are too short to clarify this. Maybe the next ones will explain it.

And yet, the affair put Gantz in an embarrassing situation. Unlike the bizarre story of alleged misconduct in high school, it appears that something in the Teflon image of the former chief of staff has cracked. The fact that his partners in the party’s leadership did not know about this issue until the news broke certainly didn’t contribute to good relations among them. After the news broke, the party conducted a technical test of Gantz’s phone. As far as is known, no signs of hacking were found, even though the Shin Bet security service was convinced that it had taken place.

To Kahol Lavan’s rescue came the submarine affair, the gift that keeps on giving. This time, Netanyahu played into their hands. The affluent politician’s insistence on extracting the state’s approval for financing his legal defense with the help of tycoons who are even wealthier is what exposed the convoluted issue of shares he received from his American cousin. Following this came the revelation of an indirect connection with the submarine- and shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.

In the meantime, Channel 13 News reported testimony given to police by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, according to which he heard from the Germans that Netanyahu himself furtively removed the Israeli veto on selling similar advanced submarines to Egypt. Two days later another bombshell exploded, with state witness Miki Ganor, the middleman in the submarine affair, retracting his testimony, which led to his renewed detention by the police.

Ganor’s announcement came in the middle of an arm-wrestling match between state prosecutors and State Comptroller Joseph Shapira. The latter has for some time been probing the possibility of looking into decision-making processes around the purchase of the naval vessels. State prosecutors were opposed to this. Ganor’s reversal now gives state prosecutors an opportunity to re-open the investigation without any VIP treatment for the prime minister.

The stench in the submarine affair is colossal. According to many former defense establishment officials, not necessarily among the leaders of Kahol Lavan, this is one of the biggest corruption cases in the country’s history. Netanyahu opened yet another Pandora’s box when in his request for funding, it turned out he made huge profits from an investment in shares, the approval of which raises big questions, to say the least.

The prime minister is a man of contradictions. On one hand, he turns out to be a skilled investor. On the other, he and his wife don’t have credit cards since they’re afraid of losing them. Moreover, he had no idea that the law office of his relative, who represents him in many sensitive political, diplomatic and legal affairs, also represented middleman Ganor, thus standing to make huge profits in any purchase of naval vessels.

When the leaders of Kahol Lavan attacked him, in a relatively effective press conference, Netanyahu responded by saying that the attorney general and state prosecutors had stated there are no suspicions of criminal wrongdoing on his part. That’s strange: When it’s convenient, Netanyahu accuses Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan of conducting an obsessive witch hunt against him. When it’s convenient to argue differently, their words are written in stone.

Gantz’s missing killer instinct

The hacked phone affair put pressure on Gantz to grant some interviews. They revealed what was known to his many acquaintances for a long time: This decent, statesmanlike person lacks a killer instinct, a quality without which it is difficult or nearly impossible to win an election. For now, it’s hard to believe that what was sufficient for him to get appointed chief of staff, as the third choice, will be enough to oust Netanyahu from the house on Balfour Street.

Another victory for Netanyahu in the present circumstances could lead to troubling results. His overarching goal this time is not just an electoral victory, but the evasion of an indictment. For this he apparently needs new legislation, which depends on the goodwill of radical rightists Bezalel Smotrich and Moshe Feiglin. The result could be the establishment of a government that is even more extreme than the current one.

Netanyahu could grant the far-right parties the ideological concessions that would push Israel closer to annexation of parts of the West Bank and possibly to a third intifada. In exchange he’ll get from them support for unprecedented legal trickery. If this works (although many jurists question the chances of it succeeding) it will stop all legal proceedings against him, thus making a mockery of the rule of law in this country. The implications, in both areas, could be destructive.

There were arguments this week that desperate campaign gimmicks by right-wing parties, such as the ironic video clip by Ayelet Shaked promoting a perfume called ‘Fascism,’ will make it difficult for Israel to present itself overseas as a democracy. This will be all the more difficult with Bezalel Smotrich in the cabinet.