One of the prime minister’s main rivals came to his defense Monday as a probe into suspected corruption in a major arms purchase deepened, saying that Benjamin Netanyahu’s motivations behind the multi-million dollar naval deal were solely Israel’s security needs.
Six suspects were questioned under caution for more than 10 hours Monday as part of an ongoing investigation into the so-called “Case 3000,” or the “submarine affair,” in which senior officials, including Netanyahu’s personal lawyer David Shimron, are suspected of trying to sway the deal in favor of the German shipbuilder ThyssenKryupp, police said on Monday morning.
“At the time of the events under question, some of the suspects were public servants and some worked in the private sector,” a joint statement released by Israel Police and the Tax Authority said, adding that they were suspected of fraud, bribery, tax evasion and money laundering.
Five of the six were not named; however, in the past most of the speculation has focused on Shimron, who represented the ship builder in Israel. A source close to the investigation who asked not to be named told The Times of Israel that some of the suspects were personal associates of the prime minister. Netanyahu is not a suspect in the case.
Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, a partner in Netanyahu’s coalition but also one of his most vocal critics on the right, defended the prime minister over the latest developments, saying that he had done nothing wrong in connection to the deal.
“As a cabinet member who supported the submarine deal, I wish to say that to the best of my knowledge, the motives in approving the deal, formulating it, and advancing it, were solely security-related,” Bennett said at the start of the Jewish Home faction meeting.
“I have no doubt the prime minister acted in accordance with the law, I give him full support and I am convinced, based on the information I have right now, that there was no fault in his behavior,” he added.
Bennett was speaking minutes after Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid accused Netanyahu of threatening to cut the Israel Police budget in a bid to have the department drop ongoing corruption probes against him.
While Netanyahu is not currently a suspect in Case 3000, he is the subject of in two other formal police investigations.
In “Case 1000,” police are investigating allegations that a number of businessmen gave lucrative gifts to Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, over his years in office. Police are also investigating another case, known as “Case 2000,” in which Netanyahu is believed to have offered the publisher of Israel’s biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth his help in reducing the readership of Yedioth’s pro-Netanyahu rival paper Israel Hayom in exchange for more favorable coverage. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing.
“The timing is not coincidental. This isn’t a technical decision. This is a threatening letter,” Lapid said of a bill by Likud MK David Amsalem that would see police budget oversight transferred from the police to the Public Security Ministry. “There is no chance in the world, no way, that this process goes ahead and the prime minister is not behind it. Him personally.”
Lapid charged that the prime minister, via Amsalem’s bill, was intimidating the police, “scaring the gatekeepers, scaring the investigators, scaring the entire system.”
One of the detainees was named later Monday as Avriel Bar-Yosef, a former deputy head of the National Security Council. Netanyahu sought to appoint Bar-Yosef to lead the NSC in 2016, but his candidacy was withdrawn when it emerged that he was suspected of accepting bribes in exchange for promoting the interests of German businessmen involved in the development of Israel’s offshore gas fields
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ordered the Israel Police to formally look into the submarine affair in November 2016, after accusations surfaced that Netanyahu may have been swayed to purchase vessels by business ties Shimron had with ThyssenKrupp. The deals for patrol boats and submarines came under intense scrutiny late last year after it was revealed by Channel 10 news that Shimron also served in an advisory capacity for ThyssenKrupp, which was awarded the contracts for building Israel’s submarines and naval attack boats.
In December, officers from the Lahav 433 police anti-corruption unit entered the office of legal adviser Ahaz Ben-Ari at the Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv and removed information from computers there. The data concerned the cancellation of an international tender to build four new warships to protect Israel’s offshore natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean Sea.
The contract was awarded instead to ThyssenKrupp. Under the 2015 deal, worth €430 million ($480 million), ThyssenKrupp is to supply Israel with four “Sa’ar 6 corvette” ships over a period of five years.
The purchase was opposed by parts of the defense establishment, including then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has since threatened to “tell all” on Netanyahu’s involvement if the prime minister is not indicted as part of the probe.