Proposal: Probe to be held secretly with findings classified

Gantz submits formal proposal for government inquiry into murky submarine deal

Vote on the investigation into the purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp to be held only after budget passes, to avoid threat to coalition

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at an event celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday submitted a formal request for a government inquiry into the so-called “submarine affair,” a murky deal between Israel and a German shipbuilder for naval vessels, which has already resulted in multiple indictments.

The scandal, also known as Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in Israel’s multi-billion-shekel purchase of naval vessels — submarines and large missile ships — from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. Several of those involved in the agreement have been indicted over the affair, including close confidants of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called for the procurement, though not the ex-premier himself.

“I have submitted to the cabinet secretary a proposal for the formation of a state commission of inquiry into the purchase of the submarines and naval vessels. The formation of the commission is critical for the defense establishment and the State of Israel — if we do not uncover the truth, we will not be able to learn lessons for the future,” Gantz said.

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.

Though there have long been calls for a government investigation into the affair by opponents of Netanyahu, his supporters have claimed that such a probe would be politically motivated, an allegation that Gantz rejected.

“This is not a personal matter; it is a national imperative. This is an issue that lies at the heart of the defense establishment and represents a national security need of the first order in order to ensure citizens’ trust in it and in its decision makers,” Gantz said in a statement.

A man rides in a mock submarine during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, on October 14, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Gantz’s proposal called for NIS 9 million ($2.85 million) to be budgeted for the commission of inquiry, with NIS 7 million ($2.22 million) coming from his Defense Ministry and NIS 2 million ($630,000) from the Justice Ministry.

Supporting the defense minister’s decision, Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the “submarine affair” the “gravest security scandal in the history of the state.” The probe was also supported by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, both of whom signed off on Gantz’s proposal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aboard the new submarine ‘Rahav’ at the Israeli navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett did not immediately comment on the proposal.

In light of the potential political fight that could erupt, the vote was scheduled to take place only after the government passed the budget, which would grant the coalition greater stability, allowing for partisan brawls without directly threatening its rule.

Though Gantz said the probe was meant to ensure Israeli citizens’ trust in the country’s defense apparatus, under his proposal the details of the inquiry would be kept almost entirely secret.

“The commission will not publish its report or protocols from its meetings, in their entirety or in part, unless the publication doesn’t contain secret information or information that has been deemed classified, at any level of classification,” the proposal reads.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of the commission’s hearings would be held “behind closed doors” and only attorneys with high security clearances would be allowed to appear before it.

A convoy of vehicles carrying mock submarines are headed to Jerusalem on Saturday, November 28, 2020, to demand an official investigation into the so-called submarine affair that has ensnared associates of PM Netanyahu but not the premier himself. (Screen capture / Investigation Now FB page)

Since the affair came to light in 2016, there have been multiple attempts to form a state inquiry of commission into the deal, including one by Gantz last year, when he attempted to probe the purchase with an internal Defense Ministry investigation. That effort was thwarted by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said it would interfere with his own criminal probe into the affair.

Earlier this year, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel was among several groups that petitioned the High Court in order to force the establishment of a state commission of inquiry. The court, however, rejected the petitions, saying that despite “improper and worrying conduct” in the case, there wasn’t cause to order a government inquiry.

While several of Netanyahu’s close associates have been indicted in the case, which involves suspicions Israeli officials were bribed to ensure Thyssenkrupp won the contract, the former premier has not been directly implicated and the attorney general has said he is not a suspect.

In October, the state prosecution told the High Court of Justice that it believed there was no justification to open a criminal probe into Netanyahu over the matter.

Netanyahu is already on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing and claims to be a victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, prosecutors, left-wing opposition and the media.

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