Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to divulge confidential information about the sale of German submarines to Egypt, but that such information — initially sought during a criminal investigation — was deemed irrelevant to the probe and no such intelligence was ultimately shared.
On Saturday, Netanyahu told Channel 12 that the attorney general and his staff were apprised of the sensitive information that prompted Israel to quietly accept German firm Thyssenkrupp’s sale of the advanced naval weaponry to neighboring Egypt, when questioned repeatedly about his role in the sale.
“To remove any doubt, we note that the attorney general was not exposed to this confidential information at any stage,” a statement from Mandelblit’s office said.
During a rare and contentious interview with Channel 12 news, Netanyahu accused his main political rivals of a “blood libel” against him and said they were trying to force him to divulge state secrets by making an issue out of Israel not objecting to the 2014 and 2015 submarine deal with Egypt.
According to reports, defense officials and others have raised concerns about the sale of the advanced weaponry to Israel’s neighbor and former foe.
“Whoever needed to know, knew,” Netanyahu said, adding that Blue and White’s Moshe Ya’alon, the former defense minister who is now running for Knesset, was not among them. Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, was also kept in the dark.
In the Channel 12 interview Saturday, Netanyahu said the nature of the information that led him to approve the sale was so secret that he did not tell anyone but the attorney general and his close staff, as well as his national security advisers, Yaakov Amidror and Jacob Nagel.
“It was examined by the attorney general — he knows the truth,” Netanyahu said.
But the statement from Mandeblit on Sunday appeared to contradict Netanyahu’s account.
On Sunday, the attorney general’s office said the issue came up during the graft investigation known as Case 3000, in which Netanyahu was questioned but was not considered a suspect.
“On the issue of selling the submarines to Germany, he explained that in this context, there is a sensitive reason why he did not oppose the sale of the submarines [to Egypt],” the statement from the attorney general’s office said. “The prime minister added that due to the secrecy of the reason, he cannot elaborate to investigators, but said he would be willing to complete his testimony on this issue in special testimony to the attorney general.”
Since the sales to Egypt were not related to the suspected bribery in Israel’s purchase of submarines from Germany in Case 3000, the issue was dropped, according to Mandelblit.
In response, Netanyahu on Sunday invited Mandeblit to a meeting to update him on the security considerations.
“The attorney general confirms that he accepts the fact that the issue of submarines for Egypt is a sensitive security issue and nothing more,” a statement from Netanyahu said. “He also confirms the fact that the prime minister offered at the time to update him on the confidential details, but the attorney general saw no need.”
“Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke with the attorney general tonight and invited him to a meeting, together with the national security adviser, in which he will update him on the remaining confidential details,” according to Netanyahu’s office.
Israeli television on Sunday, quoting legal sources, said authorities were unlikely to open a criminal investigation into the affair and Netanyahu.
Also Sunday, Channel 13 quoted Nagel as saying he was unaware that Israel had given Germany the go-ahead to sell the submarines to Egypt, contradicting Netanyahu’s assertion that he was in the loop.
“I am not aware of any such approval to sell advanced German submarines to Egypt,” the former national security adviser was quoted as saying. “I entered [the position] in October 2015, I don’t know what happened before.”
Nagel said his predecessors’ written recommendations were wary of such a sale, the TV report said.
“I am not aware of and do not know of any sort of approval like this to the Germans,” said Nagel.
Germany does not require Israeli approval for such a sale, but had evidently been open to hearing Israeli concerns.
Addressing the supply to Egypt for the first time on Saturday in his TV interview, Netanyahu confirmed that he green-lighted the sale. He also said Germany did not need Israel’s permission, but he “didn’t wrinkle my nose” when it happened, for reasons that he said he could not explain on prime-time television.
Nagel told an Israeli radio station last week that there was “no situation in which the Germans ask for approval from Israel to sell submarines to Egypt.”
“The Germans don’t ask us whether to sell or not, and anyway the responsibility falls under the Defense Ministry,” Nagel said.
The US and some other allies will only sell advanced arms to Middle Eastern countries that are either a generation removed from the weapons sold Israel, or will run the sale by Jerusalem first, as a way of protecting the Jewish state in any future conflict.
Several of Netanyahu’s former associates are facing possible graft charges in a case surrounding Israel’s decision to buy submarines, though Netanyahu is not a suspect.
Gantz, who has called for a commission of inquiry to probe suspicions of a conflict of interest in the Israeli submarine purchase, also called Saturday for an investigation into Netanyahu’s approval of the submarine sale to Egypt.
“You’ve sent me much more secretive things,” Gantz said of Netanyahu. “Was this is a strategic diplomatic decision where the country is supposed to rely on the prime minister to consult with who he needs to and decide whatever he decides? But to decide alone? Not to consult with anyone?”
Ya’alon himself said he was “shocked” by Netanyahu’s TV interview, claiming it contradicted the prime minister’s previous remarks to him.
“He signaled panic [in the interview] and continues to entangle himself in his lies,” Ya’alon told Army Radio Sunday morning. “The prime minister had denied in conversations with me that he approved the Egyptian submarine purchase. The first time he acknowledged it was yesterday in his interview. What kind of conduct is it to hide [information] from the defense minister?”
Blue and White’s No. 4, Gabi Ashkenazi — like Gantz and Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of staff — expressed similar sentiment in an Army Radio interview, saying Netanyahu was “obliged to consult with the professional experts. It’s embarrassing to discover this after he denied he was involved. It was very simple to say ‘Yes, I approved it.'”
According to a 2017 report by Channel 13 news, Netanyahu green-lit the sale despite the objections of top security officials who voiced concerns over supplying sophisticated submarines to Egypt.
According to Channel 13 news last week, Amos Gilad, a former director of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, traveled to Germany in 2015 to lobby against the sale, only to find out from Merkel’s staff that Netanyahu had personally approved it without telling anyone.
Ya’alon last week said the submarine sale could be tantamount to “treason.” Netanyahu has said he will sue Ya’alon for libel over the claim.
The prime minister said Saturday that Egypt would have bought the submarine from elsewhere and that he only okayed it for security reasons. He denied any connection to his own personal financial interests or shares, calling that allegation a “terrible blood libel.”
Opponents have alleged a possible conflict of interest on the part of the premier related to the revelation that Netanyahu once held shares in Texas-based SeaDrift Coke, a company later acquired by a supplier of ThyssenKrupp.
His apparent failure to disclose his investment to state authorities in the past is now being examined, with prosecutors said to be considering a criminal probe. According to a Channel 13 report Thursday, prosecutors suspect Netanyahu misled the State Comptroller’s Office on his financial assets.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing and said he sold his shares long before any submarine deal was made.
“I sold every share I had 1.5 years before the first submarine was bought. The charge that I made money from the submarines is a straight-out lie, I didn’t make a single shekel from the submarines because I didn’t invest a single shekel,” he said Saturday.
The 35-minute interview, Netanyahu’s first with a major Israeli television outlet in at least four years, came just weeks before Israelis head to the polls on April 9.
Blue and White released a separate statement shortly after the interview aired, calling Netanyahu “hysterical.”
“Again and again he changes his version [of events], avoids tough questions and continues to slander,” the statement said.
Michael Bachner contributed to this report.