Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett on Friday came to the defense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after reports linked him and his personal lawyer to a multi-billion shekel controversy involving the possible purchase of German submarines, prompting allegations of a conflict of interest.
“About the submarines. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not corrupt,” the education minister tweeted. “He would never sell out Israel’s security for money.”
Bennett’s comments were addressing a report by Channel 10 on Tuesday. According to the TV report, Netanyahu’s long-time personal lawyer David Shimron serves as the representative of a German company trying to sell Israel military submarines, which Netanyahu has been pushing for Israel to buy, against the will of the IDF and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Shimron, who has spent years defending Netanyahu against dozens of reports claiming malpractice and misuse of office for personal gain, is being accused of a serious conflict of interest due to his links to the German shipbuilder. Shimron serves as the representative of ThyssenKrupp, a European multi-national conglomerate based in the German cities of Duisburg and Essen.
Netanyahu announced in a cabinet meeting last month that Israel was in the process of negotiating the purchase of three new submarines for the Israeli Navy, which currently maintains a fleet of five underwater vessels, with another slated to be delivered in coming years.
The new submarines — valued at around NIS 6 billion ($1.5 billion) — were intended as replacements for the military’s older models.
Netanyahu denied on Thursday that he had any prior knowledge of Shimron being involved in the deal. Netanyahu said that he first learned of Shimron’s involvement when Channel 10 asked for his response before airing the report on Tuesday.
“Shimron never brought up submarines or ships or any other issue concerning his clients with the prime minister,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement, adding that Shimron had not discussed the German client or any other client with Netanyahu. The PMO said that members of Netanyahu’s inner circles, including Shimron, “know not to discuss their [personal] business dealings with the prime minister.”
“The only consideration the prime minister had [in mulling the German deal] was strengthening Israel’s capabilities in regard to [obtaining] strategic vessels, essential to ensure [Israel’s] future,” the PMO said.
According to the report, neither Ya’alon, who served as defense minister when the deal was first proposed, nor the IDF was in favor of purchasing the new submarines — somewhat of a change of pace in the normal narrative of the defense establishment fighting for acquisitions — as the decision did not fit with the Defense Ministry’s multi-year plan for the army.
But an IDF spokesperson said Thursday that the army did not oppose the purchases, saying in a statement that it informed the cabinet of “the need” for the new submarines.
Netanyahu is said to have started dealings with the German government without informing Ya’alon, who only learned of the plan after news of it leaked out.
Ya’alon confirmed Thursday that he had tried to dissuade Netanyahu from the deal, saying he had “vociferously objected” to it, arguing that the military did not need additional submarines, not then and “not in the near future.”
“I don’t know what happened or what was signed after I left the Defense Ministry,” Ya’alon wrote on Facebook Thursday, “but [Channel 10’s] Raviv Drucker’s report on the matter is very disturbing and warrants a thorough probe by the relevant authorities.”
According to Channel 10, Shimron represents the German shipyard slated to build the submarines and has been holding high-level meetings on behalf of the company’s Israeli agent Miki Ganor.
Shimron reportedly also met with Histadrut labor federation chair Avi Nissenkorn and the head of an IDF labor union in an attempt to secure for the German shipyard ongoing responsibility for the vessels’ maintenance while they are in Israel, as opposed to the navy.
Shimron’s involvement has raised questions about a possible conflict of interest for both him and the prime minister, especially given Netanyahu’s determination to complete the deal despite the reported IDF opposition.
The state prosecution’s office announced that it would look into the matter, according to Channel 2.