Nearly half of Israelis don’t believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to purchase three new German-made submarines for the Israeli Navy was made for purely security reasons, a Channel 2 poll revealed.
The affair dominated public debate in the country in recent weeks, as accusations surfaced that the prime minister may have been swayed in the decision by business ties his personal counsel David Shimron may have had with the submarines’ builder, ThyssenKrupp. The purchase was opposed by parts of the defense establishment, including former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ordered a preliminary probe last week into a related affair: allegations that Shimron may have used his connection to Netanyahu in 2014 to lobby for the purchase of ThyssenKrupp ships to protect Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields.
Netanyahu himself is not a target of the probe.
The Channel 2 poll found that 47 percent of respondents did not believe Netanyahu’s claim that he was thinking only of Israel’s security when he advanced the purchase of the submarines, compared to 36% who believed the prime minister.
Asked if they believed another Netanyahu claim – that he did not know of Shimron’s alleged ties to the submarine deal – an even larger number, 59%, said they did not. Just 22% believed Netanyahu.
Respondents were divided on the question of media bias in the coverage of Netanyahu over the affair, with 43% agreeing with the prime minister that the media’s treatment of the matter was unfair and 45% disagreeing.
Despite the widespread distrust, however, Netanyahu still leads by a large margin when Israelis are asked which prominent political leader is most “fit” to be prime minister. The poll found 29% preferring Netanyahu, a second-place 16% for Yesh Atid chairman MK Yair Lapid, just 7% each for opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, 6% for former generals Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon and just 4% for Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Attorney Yaakov Weinroth, a close confidant of Netanyahu who has represented him for two decades, slammed the media’s coverage for creating the distrust revealed in the Channel 2 poll.
Weinroth told the channel’s “Meet the Press” interview show, “I’m not surprised that most of the public doesn’t believe the prime minister, because in this affair, too, the facts were the first victims of the coverage…. Even if the prime minister knew [of Shimron’s alleged conflict of interest], and he didn’t, nothing was done here that fall outside the public service regulations for conflicts of interest.”
Netanyahu, Weinroth said, “is one of those people who are completely untouched by corruption. I’m not talking about his politics, but about the person, who I know well. He couldn’t have done what is alleged in the media.”
In ordering a preliminary police probe into part of the affair, Attorney General Mandelblit last week cited “new information” presented by the Israel Police’s top investigator, Deputy Commissioner Meni Yitzhaki.
“I don’t know what new material Meni Yitzhaki brought,” Weinroth said in the Channel 2 interview, “but the attorney general himself said it did not raise ‘reasonable suspicion.’ He simply has to check.”
Weinroth noted that a great deal of the media coverage confused the 2016 submarines purchase with the 2014 purchase for the gas fields.
A key complaint leveled at Shimron and Netanyahu over the handling of the 2014 deal concerns the prime minister’s decision to bypass the standard governmental tender process to approve it – even as Shimron allegedly lobbied for the purchase.
“Israel wanted to buy ships and was considering a tender,” Weinroth said of the complaint, “but they forgot one little thing: by European Union regulations, in a tender, the German government would not be allowed to aid the shipyards [with public subsidies], and therefore the tender could have jeopardized the whole thing.” The deal included both the purchase of the ships and a possible takeover of an Israeli shipyard by ThyssenKrupp to maintain the new vessels.
He added that Shimron, who represented ThyssenKrupp’s representative in Israel, Miki Ganor, “could not have made any money on the  deal in any case. He isn’t supposed to get a single shekel as a bonus if the deal is signed with the German shipyard. Netanyahu does not feel cheated or angry at Shimron because nothing was hidden from him. Shimron wasn’t supposed to tell him anything.”