A year after its launch, details of submarine affair probe’s work yet to surface

While the identities of the witnesses and the materials studied remain unknown, some believe staying under the radar may save panel from being torpedoed by Netanyahu government

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Israelis place rubber submarines in the Yarkon river as part of a protest against then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv on February 12, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis place rubber submarines in the Yarkon river as part of a protest against then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv on February 12, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This week marks the one-year anniversary since the founding of the state commission of inquiry into submarine and naval vessel purchases that occurred under a previous government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel purchased the vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp in a murky $2 billion deal that has been under scrutiny for possible corruption and bribery.

Netanyahu is not considered a suspect, but he gave testimony to the police in connection with the deal, and several of his close associates were indicted and convicted for their involvement in the negotiations.

The commission of inquiry was formed under former premier Naftali Bennett, and is headed up by former Supreme Court president Asher Grunis.

Despite a whole year having passed since then, the committee still hasn’t held a single public hearing, and there was no acknowledgement of the anniversary.

The state commission of inquiry, the most serious type of Knesset commission, is charged with evaluating the procedures and decision-making employed by the political echelon related to the sensitive procurement. Imbued with broad powers to call witnesses and compel testimony, it runs a quasi-judicial process that can result in recommendations for further action against both individuals and public sector bodies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aboard the new submarine ‘Rahav’ at the Israeli navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Since the beginning of the commission’s deliberations, its members have devoted weeks to collecting and studying the relevant materials. As part of this process, the commission invited a series of experts from the defense establishment, who will later be called upon to testify as formal witnesses.

Along with Grunis, the panel also includes former Supreme Court justice Zvi Zylbertal, former Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug, former Israel Navy commander Avraham Ben-Shoshan and former Israeli Air Force procurement division head Jacob Burtman.

Those already summoned to speak before the commission as part of the material-gathering phase say that not all of the commission’s members were present at the meetings.

In the early stages of the commission’s work (at least in the aforementioned meetings) only two of the five members of the panel were present. The rest of the participants in the meetings were advisers or assistants to the committee members, who requested paperwork, information and background.

At the start of this month, the commission moved from the preliminary stage of studying the material to summoning formal witnesses.

However, as of this time, the name of only one witness has been publicly announced — Amos Gilad, who was the director of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau at the time of the purchase of the submarines.

Amos Gilad at a conference in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The names of any other witnesses, if they exist, are unknown. Nor is it known how many times a week the commission meets, and which of the panel members are present when it does.

As of this month, the commission has been meeting at a Defense Ministry building with a side entrance in the Tel Hashomer complex near Tel Aviv, the former location (or so it’s said) of the payments department of the ministry and the Israel Defense Forces.

Next to the building is the former Military Police headquarters, and to attend any of the commission’s discussions, it is necessary to go through military checkpoints, making it difficult for journalists to attend any future discussions by the panel.

While the commission was established last January, a few months later the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee amended the decision so that the committee’s deliberations would generally be made public unless the panel determined that classified matters relating to state security and foreign relations were under discussion.

But despite that decision, everything up until now has been conducted behind closed doors, and journalists have not been invited to cover the proceedings.

Activists call for the opening of a committee of inquiry in the so-called submarine affair, outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 23, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There is a chance that this secrecy will allow the commission to survive. Those involved with the panel have expressed concern that Netanyahu’s new government will try to narrow its remit, or even take steps toward a government decision to end its work.

Some of the witnesses who are supposed to come and speak before the committee are over the age of 80 and may have difficulty recollecting the details due to the amount of time that has passed since the procurement processes.

One of the key witnesses is 83-year-old former president Reuven Rivlin, who in 2015 — during a visit to Berlin — expressed concern to German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the sale of an advanced submarine to Egypt.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and President Reuven Rivlin, left, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, May 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

In that famous meeting, Merkel revealed to him something that he had not known — that Netanyahu had approved the sale. Rivlin was amazed.

These things are supposed to be heard by the committee — and the media is supposed to be permitted to cover the panel’s deliberations.

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