Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s decision not to investigate Benjamin Netanyahu in the so-called submarine case has delighted the prime minister and his supporters. They view this, rightly, as a legal acquittal.
But they are wrong about the decision’s public implications. Their joy won’t be complete as long as a heavy cloud of questions lingers over the affair, such as the nature of the “secret” that made Netanyahu decide not to tell defense officials that he had approved Germany’s sale of submarines to Egypt.
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The suspicions in this case – as seen in the responses to Mendelblit’s decision, and not just from politicians – have only grown stronger. Former senior defense officials like Amos Gilead and Dan Harel, who were privy to the state’s deepest secrets and therefore wielded great influence over defense policy on critical issues, have joined the wide circle of former top officials demanding an inquiry commission into the submarine case. It’s impossible to dismiss their accusations on the usual grounds of being politically driven.
Very few former senior defense officials have come to Netanyahu’s defense. Two who did are Yaakov Amidror and Jacob Nagel. But their explanation, which was published in Haaretz, didn’t provide adequate answers to the charges leveled by Gilad, Harel and others like them.
The failure to inform the defense establishment of the decision to approve the sale of advanced subs to Germany was “a stupid mistake, not an evil plot,” Amidror said. But with all due respect, that assertion does nothing to prove that this was truly a case of stupidity rather than malice. It merely increases the suspicions.
Gnawing fears about what was done in the Holy of Holies of Israel’s security persist, and they aren’t necessarily confined to the legal realm. Even seemingly legal procedural decisions can be completely unethical and stink. Only a state commission of inquiry can clear the people involved over this aspect of the case.
The prosecution has already cleared Netanyahu. Now he must clear his name in the public’s eyes as well. A commission of inquiry would presumably follow in the prosecution’s footsteps, and if he set up such a panel now, it could reduce the tensions.
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Given the intensity of the demands being made, such a commission will eventually be established, even if it takes some time. So it would be better for Netanyahu to set it up now, of his own initiative, rather than leaving it until too late, as he usually does.
It’s impossible to dismiss the argument that even if the prime minister emerged clean as the driven snow, this wouldn’t convince the “anyone but Bibi” purists. The people who despised then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and then-Prime Minister Golda Meir didn’t accept the Agranat Commission’s conclusion that most of the blame for the failures of the 1973 Yom Kippur War rested with the army. The same was true of the inquiry into the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in two Beirut refugee camps by Israel’s Lebanese allies.
Yet even if Netanyahu’s opponents don’t accept any findings that clear him, hundreds of thousands of other concerned Israelis who aren’t a priori hostile to him will breathe a sigh of relief.
Moreover, it’s critical for the future of the army and the existence of the state that soldiers feel confident that the cabinet members who decide to send them into battle have clean hands. Many people whose sons and daughters are currently serving in the military have discovered that the questions being asked by the public are also being asked by soldiers, especially officers. The latter, driven by concern for the integrity of the system rather than hatred, will presumably accept the substance of the inquiry’s findings.
Despite the stubborn opposition of Netanyahu’s inner circle, which is driving him to the wrong decision on this issue, too, he knows that the establishment of a commission of inquiry would probably lower the flames. And there’s also the issue of the historical record. That, too, is something he claims to understand.