A day after his bombshell announcement that he had formed a government committee to investigate the so-called submarine affair, which has ensnared several of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said Monday that he was ready for the consequences of the controversial move, including going to new elections.
In an unapologetic interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, the Blue and White chair and defense minister aimed fire at Netanyahu and said he was girding for a fight he would not back down from.
“I suggest you follow me for the next two weeks, and do not go to bed at night before you check what Benny Ganz has done,” he said. “I am always a man of peace, but if there is no choice and I have to fight — then I will fight.”
“I have been in the government half a year, cooperating as best I can, paying every political price possible, but if I have to go into battle then that is what I will do,” Gantz declared. “I am waging this battle for the State of Israel.”
The submarine affair, also known as Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.
While several of Netanyahu’s close associates face charges in the case, which involves suspicions Israeli officials were bribed to push for the acquisitions of naval vessels and submarines from Thyssenkrupp, the prime minister has not been implicated and the attorney general has said he is not a suspect.
Gantz’s move to set up the government commission of inquiry, which will operate under the auspices of the Defense Ministry, appeared to spark a coalition crisis, imperiling the already dysfunctional unity government. Gantz’s Blue and White party joined rival Likud to form a coalition in May, following three consecutive elections. Gantz said at the time that he was joining Netanyahu for the benefit of the country to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
But, he told Yedioth, “The state is on the backburner today because Netanyahu is busy with other issues. Netanyahu thinks first and foremost about his trial.”
“Yalla Fauda,” he added, referring to the phrase from the popular TV series “Fauda,” which denotes bedlam and indicates a readiness for a no-holds barred melee.
Frustrated by the deadlock in the government, Gantz last week said that he had instructed his party to gather together “all of the relevant bills that will advance equality, fight corruption and other values that are important to us.”
The move would potentially include putting forward legislation to limit the term of the prime minister or prevent a prime minister from serving under indictment — proposals that would likely have the backing of a majority of the Knesset if supported by Blue and White but would almost certainly result in the breakup of the coalition.
Gantz all but said that the government had failed and should break up.
“In the situation we are in, when there are hardly any government meetings and issues on the agenda are the size of a stamp — what sort of country is this? What a government it is?” he said. “I am not prepared to take responsibility for a dysfunctional government.”
Asked if this means he will support the dissolution of the Knesset and early elections Gantz replied, “What needs to be done will be done.”
Netanyahu, who was accused by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon of having led an improper effort to buy the submarines from Thyssenkrupp, has previously blocked a number of efforts to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry.
The defense minister’s office said in a statement that the committee, to be led by retired judge Amnon Straschnov, will be specifically tasked with exploring the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in the purchase of the naval vessels, as well as that of the National Security Agency and the Defense Ministry.
The statement noted that Gantz had reached a decision on the establishment of the committee after holding numerous consultations with former senior members of the legal and security establishment, but the timing sparked accusations of it being politically motivated.
The Likud party accused Gantz of opening the probe to boost his electoral prospects and of neglecting the public during the pandemic crisis. The Blue and White party has seen a substantial drop in support since Gantz entered the coalition, and another round of elections is widely expected before Gantz’s scheduled turn as prime minister in November 2021, as specified in the coalition deal.
Coalition chairman and close Netanyahu ally Miki Zohar of Likud said the move to launch am inquiry was “no less than a provocation against Likud and its leader.”
“Even though Gantz knows well that Netanyahu had nothing to do with the submarine story, he is acting to besmirch him while endangering the coalition,” Zohar said.
“This is yet more proof that Gantz is forcefully dragging Israel to elections during a global crisis, instead of assisting the prime minister in his efforts to bring vaccines to the citizens of Israel,” Zohar said.
The Likud party issued a statement Sunday saying, “Gantz is unable to rise from the depths in the polls, so he’s recycling submarines to scrounge up some votes, while his party is busy with infighting.”
Apart from the vessels purchased by Israel, the scandal also involves the sale of two Dolphin-class submarines and two anti-submarine warships by Germany to Egypt, allegedly approved by Netanyahu without consulting or notifying the Defense Ministry. Critics and rivals of Netanyahu allege he had a possible conflict of interest surrounding the massive deal for the vessels.
David Shimron, Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and second cousin, was originally suspected of mediating a bribery deal in the submarine case, but that charge was dropped by police and he is instead charged with money laundering. Avriel Bar-Yosef, Netanyahu’s one-time pick for national security adviser, faces charges of requesting a bribe, taking a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust.
Other prominent suspects in the case include Miki Ganor, Thyssenkrupp’s representative in Israel, who is being charged with bribery, money laundering, and tax offenses; Eliezer Marom, a former head of the Israeli Navy, who faces charges of bribery, money laundering and tax offenses; and David Sharan, a former aide to Netanyahu and to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was charged with bribery, breach of trust and money laundering.
In October, the state prosecution told the High Court of Justice that it believes there is no justification to open a criminal probe into Netanyahu over the matter.
Netanyahu is already on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing and claims to be a victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, prosecutors, left-wing opposition and the media.
Gantz’s office said the findings of the committee will be presented within four months and will be shared with “full public transparency.”