Signaling a new stage in their election campaign with three weeks left until the national vote, leaders of the Blue and White party on Monday launched an all-out offensive against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over fresh allegations that he may have earned millions of shekels from the so-called submarine affair.
In a possible attempt to divert the news cycle from headlines over a purported Iranian hack of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s phone, the party’s top echelon held its first full press conference, in which, one by one, its members accused Netanyahu of being implicated in “the greatest security-related corruption case in the history of the State of Israel.”
The high-profile Case 3000 investigation has snared several close associates of Netanyahu, but not the premier himself, on suspicion that they received illicit funds as part of a massive graft scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.
According to a Channel 13 report last week, the State Comptroller’s Office recently discovered that Netanyahu and his cousin Nathan Milikowsky were shareholders in a graphite electrodes manufacturing company, GrafTech International, a longtime supplier of Thyssenkrupp.
Gantz, speaking with Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi at his side, accused Netanyahu of receiving a reported NIS 16 million [$4.5 million] “right into his pocket.”
Gantz said that if he wins the election, Blue and White will establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry into Netanyahu’s ties to the case, as well as his alleged green-lighting of sales of advanced naval weaponry to Egypt.
“I hope it’s not true,” said Gantz of the prospect that the prime minister was corrupt, but noted that Netanyahu is already facing charges, pending a hearing, in three other corruption cases and is “suspected of looking out for himself, before the security of Israel.”
Presenting himself in contrast to Netanyahu, Gantz said, “I have devoted my entire life to the State of Israel, our entire lives have gone to the security of Israel, I have lost friends, but I have always believed that we are doing the job based on the good intentions of our leaders.”
Case 3000, however, is “the biggest blow to the public trust in the system; it is also a blow to security,” Gantz said, charging that IDF soldiers “deserve answers” from Netanyahu over his involvement in the case.
Blue and White’s number two, Yair Lapid, speaking after Gantz, said that an investigation to get those answers was “inevitable.”
“As someone who gave evidence in the submarine affair, as the one who managed some of the negotiations with the German government, I join the clear call — this is the biggest national security corruption scandal in the history of the country and Netanyahu is at its center. It is unavoidable: He will be investigated,” he said.
Presenting specific questions to Netanyahu over his involvement, Lapid demanded that the prime minister explain why he was invested in a company that supplied materials to Thyssenkrupp and why he initially denied the approval of sales to Egypt. He also asked, “How is it possible that he didn’t know that the two people closest to him in the world, his family, received millions of euros in commission for the submarine and ship deal that he personally oversaw?”
In addition to Milikowsky’s involvement, the investigation has already seen police recommend bribery charges against another cousin of Netanyahu, his long-term attorney David Shimron; his former bureau chief David Sharan; his former pick for National Security adviser Avriel Bar-Yosef; former head of the navy Eliezer Marom; and former minister Eliezer Sandberg. Netanyahu has been interviewed as a witness in the case, but is not a suspect.
Shimron represented Thyssenkrupp in the sale and is suspected of trading his influence over the prime minister in return for a hefty cut of the deal. Police believe he pushed for a NIS 6 billion ($1.5 billion) defense contract to purchase submarines for the Israeli Navy and other vessels to protect the country’s offshore natural gas fields.
Netanyahu’s own role in the purchase decision, including his insistence that Thyssenkrupp be exempted from the usual Defense Ministry tender process, raised concerns of a conflict of interest for Shimron. Part of the agreement allegedly pushed by Shimron would also have seen Thyssenkrupp construct a lucrative shipyard in Israel, where the company would maintain the new vessels.
Ya’alon, Blue and White’s number 3, who was Netanayahu’s defense minister at the time of the deal, said that he did not initially suspect wrongdoing by the prime minister, but could not understand why he had pushed for the purchase of additional boats, despite the objections of then-chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.
“Netanyahu, what prompted you to demand in August 2015 to increase Israel’s submarine fleet without a discussion, and contrary to the position of all professionals?” Ya’alon asked.
“Why did you cancel the international tender and give it straight to Thyssenkrupp? Why did you act all on your own?” the slow-spoken ex-general continued.
The third former chief of staff on Blue and White’s slate, Gabi Ashkenazi, said that Netanyahu’s “deals” were the antithesis of the army’s values. “We didn’t know that he was directly involved and benefited from it. Its a terrible shock to find out.”
The accusation by Blue and White, which has mounted a formidable challenge to Netanyahu’s Likud party ahead of April’s election but is starting to slip in the polls, comes as Gantz has been in the headlines over a purported Iranian hack of his phone.
The initial report about the hack was carried on Thursday by Channel 12, which said Iranian intelligence had managed to gain access to Gantz’s cellphone and all its contents. A follow-up report on Saturday night said that no sensitive security information had been housed on Gantz’s phone at the time of the breach, but suggested that the incident was “embarrassing” for him.
Moments before the Monday night press conference, Netanyahu mocked Gantz over the hack.
“If Benny Gantz can’t protect his phone, how will he protect our country?” goaded Netanyahu in a Facebook post.
Responding to the report, Blue and White has said that the phone hack story was leaked in an attempt to divert attention away from the Case 3000 revelations.
“This is Netanyahu’s spin which just happens to leak a day after reports are published on the submarine affair,” Lapid told Channel 13 on Thursday. “It turns out that he had received NIS 16 million for deals he and his cousin had done with Thyssenkrupp… and suddenly a day later, a crazy story about Iranians and phone calls appears.”
At the same time, the party has asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate who leaked the story to the press.
Asked by The Times of Israel on Monday if the two-edged response resembled US President Donald Trump’s claim of “real leaks, fake news,” Gantz said that the fact that his phone had been hacked was “undoubtedly leaked,” but that any claim of impropriety on his behalf was “nothing but a smear.”
Instead of being “sidelined” by the story, Gantz urged the public to focus on the Case 3000 allegations.
“We didn’t come to deal with [the phone hacking]. I have said that there was no security breach and no private messages. We are facing a mega-serious case that the prime minister is implicated in. That is what Israel is facing right now.”
A statement from the Likud party called Gantz’s comments an “embarrassment.”
“On a day when a soldier was killed, Lapid and Gantz are trying to forcefully resurrect the submarine scandal, where it has already been found that the prime minister never had any connection ever,” the statement said, adding that Netanyahu has never “earned a shekel from the deal.”
The statement said that Gantz had completely “lost his sense of judgement.”
Last month, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, 1000, 2000, and 4000, and for bribery in the last of the three. The prime minister denies the allegations, and says the cases are part of a political witch hunt designed to oust him, involving the left, the media and the police pressuring a weak attorney general.
While a sitting Israeli prime minister has never been this close to indictment before, Netanyahu is not obligated to resign at this stage. The planned indictment is still subject to a hearing, during which Netanyahu can plead his case before formal charges are filed. That process will take place after April 9 elections, likely before July, according to the Justice Ministry.