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Gantz proposes larger team to probe submarine affair, with ‘public representative’

Defense minister says decision to expand committee to five members from original three, ahead of Sunday’s vote, came after discussion with top legal officials

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israelis protest against then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside a court hearing on the submarine affair, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis protest against then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside a court hearing on the submarine affair, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz proposed that an expanded committee should investigate the so-called “submarine affair,” a murky deal between Israel and a German shipbuilder for naval vessels, with one member being a “representative of the public,” his office said ahead of a vote on the matter planned for Sunday.

Initially, the inquiry commission was to consist of three officials, one of them a retired judge, tasked with investigating the questionable ways in which Israel purchased submarines and missile ships from Germany’s Thyssenkrupp. Gantz’s office said it would now be expanded to five members.

The submarine deal has already led to a number of indictments against several close confidants of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called for the procurement, though not against the ex-premier himself. The corruption suspicions and subsequent indictments were handled by police in what is known officially as Case 3000.

Gantz has long pushed for a state inquiry into the affair, as has Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, though other ministers in the government have been more ambivalent or outright opposed to such a step.

After a number of delays, Gantz officially added the issue to the cabinet’s docket for Sunday.

Just before doing so, Gantz held last-minute discussions with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who had spoken with Chief Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut, who recommended expanding the commission to five.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a vote on the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, at the Knesset, on January 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The defense minister is interested in expanding the number of members in light of the necessary expertise needed for a number of issues — legal issues, issues relating to defense and purchasing, and issues relating to policy-setting and government conduct,” Gantz’s office said.

The move also appeared to be a response to criticism from within the government and, more significantly, from the opposition, which has claimed that the probe is politically motivated and aimed against Netanyahu.

The defense minister’s office said one of the five members would serve as a “‘representative of the public’ in order to increase the public’s faith in the work of the commission.”

Gantz’s proposal of the investigation was expected to pass in the cabinet on Sunday, though it would have a few notable abstentions and “no” votes. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is expected to abstain, while Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, a top member of Bennett’s Yamina party, and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the right-wing New Hope party were expected to vote against the panel’s formation.

Sa’ar, who leads the New Hope party, will vote in favor of establishing the commission, but ministers in his party were given permission to vote as they choose “given the nature of the issue,” his office said in a statement.

During an online meeting Saturday with members of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel watchdog group, Gantz said his push for an investigation was not political and “is a national need.”

“It’s the least political thing… We need to keep security out of the political field; certainly on strategic issues of this kind,” he said.

Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister, seen at a welcoming ceremony for a new submarine, Rahav, at the Israeli Navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The scandal also involved the sale of two Dolphin-class submarines and two anti-submarine warships by Germany to Egypt, allegedly approved by Netanyahu without consulting or notifying then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and then-IDF chief of staff Gantz. Israel had long been granted an unofficial veto over such sales by Germany. On Thursday, Israel closed a deal to buy three submarines from Germany.

Last year, the state prosecution told the High Court of Justice that it believed there was no justification to open a criminal probe into Netanyahu’s actions in the matter.

The now-opposition leader is already on trial in three unrelated corruption cases, although he is reportedly in talks to ink a plea deal.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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