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Unnamed coalition officials to TV news: Proposal is petty

Gantz, Sa’ar feud over proposed state inquiry of submarine scandal

Defense chief says he intends to call for a vote on the matter next week, but justice minister denies he has authority to do so; Bennett’s party said to oppose probe

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

From right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman attend the first cabinet meeting, at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
From right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman attend the first cabinet meeting, at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office said Wednesday that he intends to call for a vote on the formation of a state inquiry into the so-called submarine affair at the next cabinet meeting, setting off government infighting with Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar over the proposed probe.

Gantz announced his plan to propose such an investigation on Saturday night, sparking a minor political controversy that escalated into the public spat between him and Sa’ar. Hebrew media reports indicated Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was opposed to a state commission on the issue.

The defense minister’s office said he submitted initial drafts of his proposal to the justice and finance ministries on Tuesday for review. Upon receiving their responses, he plans to bring the matter to a vote by the cabinet when it next meets on Sunday.

“Gantz intends to submit his proposal to the government ahead of the cabinet meeting on Sunday, after submitting and receiving feedback from the relevant offices,” his spokesperson said in a statement.

However, the Justice Ministry denied receiving Gantz’s proposal and Sa’ar said Gantz had no authority to advance such a proposal without him.

“Already on Saturday evening, after the defense minister’s office released a statement to the media on the matter, it was informed by the attorney general’s office that any query on the matter must pass through the justice minister’s office,” Sa’ar’s office said in a statement.

Sa’ar also slammed Gantz’s conduct as “unprofessional and unacceptable,” saying the defense chief issued a statement to the press without any coordination on the matter or prior deliberation.

“The establishment of a state commission of inquiry is a weighty issue. The haste and lack of orderly discussion… are unacceptable,” the statement said.

Gantz quickly fired back, with his office insisting that the Defense Ministry’s legal advisers gave the proposal “to the relevant officials at the Justice Ministry” at 4:46 p.m. on Tuesday, and had coordinated the matter beforehand. Gantz served as acting justice minister for several months before the new government was sworn in last week.

“Conversations on the proposal were also held between the ministers’ offices,” a statement from his office said.

According to Channel 12 news, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has informed Gantz that Bennett’s Yamina party will oppose the establishment of a state commission into the affair.

Shaked and other Yamina sources told Gantz the issue is not in the coalition agreements, the report said.

The network also quoted sources saying Gantz still intends to bring the proposal to the cabinet on Sunday and “go all the way” to advance the state inquiry.

Spokespeople for Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid earlier told The Times of Israel the matter would be discussed within the government. Unnamed officials in the coalition told Channel 12 that Gantz’s proposal was petty and had not been coordinated with the rest of the government.

The submarine affair, 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. The scandal also involved the sale of two Dolphin-class submarines and two anti-submarine warships by Germany to Egypt, allegedly approved by former prime minister Benjamin 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.

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.

Netanyahu, who was accused by former defense minister Ya’alon of having led the alleged improper effort to buy the submarines from Thyssenkrupp, has previously blocked a number of efforts to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry.

Last year, Gantz announced that his ministry was launching an internal investigation of the scandal, a move that did not require external approval. However, this probe quickly fell apart as the attorney general voiced concerns that it would interfere with his own criminal inquiry, which resulted in a number of indictments last month.

On Saturday night, Gantz’s office said that in light of the indictments and the closing of the criminal probe, a fresh investigation would no longer interfere with anything.

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

“Following staff work that took place in recent months, Defense Minister Gantz decided to bring to the government a recommendation for the formation of a state inquiry commission into the purchase of the submarines and ships,” his office said.

The state commission of inquiry that Gantz is proposing would have the power to subpoena witnesses, forcing them to appear for questioning — which his previous ministerial probe could not do.

“I expect that this time all the ministers in the government will support the formation of a commission. We cannot allow open questions to remain and we must draw broad conclusions. A criminal probe is not enough for the worst security scandal in the history of the State of Israel,” Gantz said.

In addition to the reported internal griping in the coalition, Gantz’s announcement also drew swift condemnation from Netanyahu’s Likud party, which claimed that the defense minister had in the past said there was no need for an independent inquiry into the submarine scandal.

“Gantz is continuing his blind pursuit of Netanyahu and Likud,” the party said in a statement.

The defense minister’s Blue and White party fired back, blaming the former premier for scuttling previous attempts to investigate the scandal.

“The former prime minister and Likud prevented the formation of a state commission of inquiry over the last year, and now the time has come to bring the matter to a thorough examination, so that Israel’s security will never be harmed,” Blue and White wrote on Twitter.

Last month, prosecutors filed indictments for bribery, money laundering and tax offenses at the Tel Aviv District Court Monday against Miki Ganor, who was the local agent for Thyssenkrupp. Avriel Bar-Yosef, once Netanyahu’s pick to be head of the Israel National Security Council, was indicted for bribery and breach of trust.

In addition, indictments for bribery, money laundering and breach of trust were filed against Netanyahu’s former chief of staff David Sharan; former chair of the fundraising organization Keron Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) Eliezer Sandberg; Brig. Gen. (res.) Shay Brosh, a former commander of the Israeli Navy’s commando unit; Rami Taib, a former political adviser to former Likud minister Yuval Steinitz; and media adviser Yitzhak Liber.

Alongside the indictments, cases were closed against David Shimron, cousin and former personal lawyer to Netanyahu, as well as former commander of the Israeli Navy Eliezer Marom, after prosecutors accepted their defenses at their respective pre-indictment hearings.

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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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