At attorney general’s request, Gantz puts probe into submarine scandal on hold

In blow to Blue and White chief, Avichai Mandelblit says his own investigation into allegations around naval acquisitions should be completed before next inquiry starts

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has asked Defense Minister Benny Gantz to hold off on his probe into the so-called submarine scandal, denting the Blue and White party leader’s political leverage over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mandelblit said Gantz should wait until a criminal probe into the naval acquisitions scandal can be completed.

In a statement, Gantz’s office on Sunday evening said he would heed the attorney general’s directive, “so as not to undermine the integrity of the criminal proceedings.” The Defense Ministry said the inquiry would be launched “without delay” once it receives the go-ahead from Mandelblit.

Gantz’s bombshell announcement last week that he would launch an inquiry was seen as a shot across the bow of Netanyahu, his coalition partner.

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.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (FLASH90)

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.

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.

In announcing the 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring the INS Tanin submarine, built by the German firm Thyssenkrupp, as it arrived in Israel on September 23, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

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 expected before Gantz is  scheduled to take his turn as prime minister in November 2021, as specified in the coalition deal.

Netanyahu is widely believed to be planning to use a stalemate over the state budget, which must be passed by December 23, to call early elections and avoid the handover of power to Gantz.

Blue and White is also considering supporting a no-confidence motion that would bring down the government on Wednesday.

On the campaign trail, Gantz called for a state commission to probe the submarine affair, but in recent months Blue and White has refrained from voting on several bills to establish such an investigative committee, all of which were shot down due to a lack of support in the Knesset.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a vote to stave off a budget deadline and thus avert elections, at the Knesset on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

His decision appeared likely to spark a coalition crisis, with coalition chair Miki Zohar last week responding to the announcement by saying that “Gantz’s decision to set up a commission of inquiry into the submarines is nothing less than an act of defiance against Likud and its leader.”

Zohar added that “although Gantz is well aware that Netanyahu has no hand in the story of the submarines, he is working to discredit him while risking the integrity of the coalition.”

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 okayed 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.

(L-R) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal lawyer David Shimron, his former diplomatic envoy Yitzhak Molcho, his former bureau chief David Sharan, former deputy national security adviser Avriel Bar-Yosef and former commander of the Israeli Navy Eliezer Marom. (Flash90)

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.

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