Former IDF chief Benny Gantz pushed back against claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that security chiefs did not need to be in the loop about a sale of German submarines to Egypt, after the premier gave a rare interview defending his decision to keep them in the dark.
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 deal.
“Whoever needed to know, knew,” Netanyahu said, adding that the defense minister at the time Moshe Ya’alon, who is now running for Knesset with Gantz’s Blue and White party, was not among them.
“Are you listening to yourself? Do you hear what you are saying?” Gantz asked rhetorically in a video released Saturday night as a rebuttal to the interview. “To talk about selling submarines as if its the personal decision of the prime minister without consulting with the defense minister? Without consulting with the IDF chief?”
Gantz, who was IDF chief at the time of the sale, and his party have made suspicions around Netanyahu links to submarine sales a central component of their campaign, including allegations that the prime minister may have profited personally via shares he previously owned in a company that supplied German submarine builder ThyssenKrupp
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 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. “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 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.
Netanyahu demurred repeatedly when asked Saturday night to explain his decision to approve the sale.
Germany does not require Israeli approval for such a sale but had requested it nonetheless, due to the two nations’ special relationship, according to an adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel. 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.
In the Channel 12 interview Saturday, Netanyahu said the nature of the information that led him to okay 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.
“In the State of Israel, there are secrets that only the prime minister know and a handful of others,” he said.
According to a report carried by 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 Netanyahu could be put on trial for treason, apparently related to the approval of the Egyptian submarine purchase. 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 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.