Although not unanimous, last month’s Israeli Cabinet vote to establish a commission of inquiry into the procurement of submarines, anti-submarine vessels and surface vessels during the period of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership was only to be expected. Of all the corruption cases associated with the Netanyahu era, this is the one that should keep most Israeli citizens awake at night, without detracting from the seriousness of the other corruption cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust the former prime minister is currently on trial for.
Unlike those cases, disturbing as they are, that revolve around either Netanyahu’s hedonism or his obsession with the way he is portrayed in the media, the submarine affair is about possible corruption in one of the country’s most important weapons system procurements and raises the question of whether Israel’s security was compromised for the sake of sheer greed. This is not about cigars and bottles of Champagne or getting favorable media coverage in return for legislation that would line the pockets of several wealthy businesspeople and media moguls. It is about whether decisions about purchasing these vessels from Germany were made purely on the basis of Israel’s security needs or whether they were tainted by the greed of those who received a commission from the deal. And if the latter is the case, how high up the political ladder did this corruption reach?
Submarines play a crucial role in Israel’s overall defense strategy, not only in protecting its relatively long maritime border and lines of communication in the Mediterranean, but also in establishing deterrence far from its immediate borders.
In the early decades of the country’s history, the navy was regarded as the lesser of the military branches and there was underinvestment in it. However, since the 1970s, in the wake of frequent terrorist attacks from the sea — and subsequently in the late 2000s with the discovery of significant reserves of offshore natural gas — the navy was also tasked with the defense of the country’s offshore marine infrastructure. Little mentioned is the role of the Israeli Navy, especially its submarines, in containing Iran and deterring the latter’s nuclear program. According to foreign publications, the five Dolphin-class submarines that Israel currently possesses are capable of launching cruise missiles fitted with nuclear warheads, providing Israel with a second-strike retaliatory capability should it suffer a surprise attack.
Almost simultaneously with the announcement of the probe into possible corrupt behavior involving past deals with the German firm ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, Israel and Germany announced that the same company would build a further three advanced submarines for the Israeli Navy in a deal worth $3.4 billion. This leaves no doubt about the emergence of the navy as a major arm of Israel’s defense strategy.
The commission of inquiry is also tasked with examining an attempt, which was averted, to transfer responsibility for maintaining the submarines from Israel’s naval shipyards to the German corporation. And probably the most controversial issue in front of the commission is why Israel’s consent was given — most likely by Netanyahu himself — for the sale of advanced German submarines to Egypt. Was it a strategic decision to support an ally in building its naval capability or was it because some who were in a position of power, or close to it, were able to charge an additional commission for that deal?
Considering the cost of procuring such vessels, the cut taken by the brokers of these deals must be in the millions and their access to power increases their chances of promoting the interests of the arms producers they represent. Until the commission presents its findings, it will be difficult to know how far up the political chain of command this scandal reached, but already seven of those involved in the submarines’ procurement have been charged for offences including bribery following four years of police investigation into what has become known as “Case 3000.”
What raises serious suspicions of wrongdoing in terms of corruption is the number of people involved in this procurement who were close to Netanyahu, including family members that the former prime minister had close financial ties with. To make things worse for him, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is also a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and political ally of Netanyahu, said that, when he became defense minister, he could not figure out why the prime minister was pushing for the purchase of additional submarines and other boats, despite the objections of the IDF chief of staff and the navy commander, who wanted to put the budget toward other military systems.
Ya’alon argued that the reason the attorney general was reluctant to investigate Netanyahu over this issue, while indicting him on other corruption counts, was that “if it turned out he (Netanyahu) was involved, it would be a death blow to national security and, even when we need them, no one will sell us submarines.” Later, he reiterated that this affair represented “the most severe security-related corruption affair in the country’s history.” Ya’alon’s comments also reflect a widely held opinion that it was impossible for the prime minister at the time not to know about this affair and the corruption involved in it.
Israeli politics is, sadly, ravaged by corruption, but this affair touches a raw nerve for ordinary Israelis, who see the issue of security as sacrosanct. If the commission of inquiry concludes there was impropriety in the procurement, it will surely crush any trust left in the political leadership and deepen the existing schism in society. It would be even more poignant should it turn out that self-styled “Mr. Security” Netanyahu was mixing personal gain with security considerations, or at least turning a blind eye to others who were doing so.
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