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Justice minister compares Netanyahu secrecy on F-35s to submarine graft case

Several critics see echoes of scandal in which government allegedly secretly okayed sale of advanced arms to Egypt in newest affair, as PM is accused of hiding talks with US, UAE

Illustrative: US Air Force F-35A Lightning II’s at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, on November 16, 2019 (Joshua Williams/US Department of Defense)
Illustrative: US Air Force F-35A Lightning II’s at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, on November 16, 2019 (Joshua Williams/US Department of Defense)

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn on Sunday joined other politicians and public officials in questioning the decision-making process behind Israel agreeing to not try to block the sale of American F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.

Nissenkorn and others compared the failure to update and consult top defense officials to a major corruption case known as the submarine scandal, one element of which involved Israel reportedly okaying the sale of an advanced German vessel to Egypt without the defense minister’s knowledge.

On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz released a joint statement saying that Israel had agreed not to object to the sale. Gantz followed it up with a statement of his own accusing Netanyahu of keeping him and others in the dark about the sale.

Gantz doubled down on the remarks on Saturday after Netanyahu called his claims “baseless.”

The highly irregular public argument over a top foreign policy issue has become the latest wedge driving the leaders of the shaky coalition government apart, with the pair and their respective factions already at loggerheads over a host of other issues.

“The fact that the Defense Ministry doesn’t know ahead of time about things that are critical for Israel’s security and that it stays within the walls of the Prime Minister’s Office is improper,” Nissenkorn, from Gantz’s Blue and White party, told Army Radio.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn leads a meeting of the Arrangements Committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“That is likely what happened in the submarine affair and that is what happened now with the F-35, and that’s wrong,” he continued. “Things like this must be fully reported on ahead of time. If they aren’t it is very severe.”

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Zvi Hauser, who also comes from Gantz’s flank, also appeared to reference the submarine scandal in comments about the F-35 agreement.

“It’s bad, but we’ve seen things being hidden before. This isn’t correct. The damage will mainly be internal damage to trust within the government.”

The corruption probe nicknamed the submarine affair, or Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. The case involves an Israeli okay for the sale of an advanced submarine to Egypt without notifying the defense minister and other top defense officials. The scandal has embroiled several close associates of Netanyahu, as well as high ranking military officials, but not the premier himself.

Gantz flew to Washington this week where he and US counterpart Mark Esper signed an agreement to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

After securing this assurance from the US, Gantz and Netanyahu released a joint statement saying that in light of this agreement and promises to supply Israel with yet more powerful weapons, Jerusalem would not object to the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. The proposed sale was expected to be announced to the US Congress shortly, which must affirm that it would not harm Israel’s QME, something it would be less likely to do if Israel objected.

But minutes later, Gantz said he and others had not been informed about initial negotiations regarding the sale of the F-35 stealth fighters as part of the UAE’s normalization deal signed with Israel in September.

“Following the signing of the peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, the defense minister discovered that there were — in parallel — negotiations to sell advanced weapons,” Gantz said in a statement, referring to the state-of-the-art F-35 jet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/Flash90)

Gantz said the talks between the US and the UAE over the jets were “known to Israeli officials who were part of the (normalization) negotiations, but were hidden from the defense establishment, which was not involved.”

The defense minister’s comments appeared to confirm claims made shortly after the normalization deal was struck with the UAE, that as part of the agreement, the US would sell the F-35 and other advanced weaponry to the Emirates with Israel’s blessing.

By law the US is required to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region and until now this has been cited as one of the main reasons why Washington refused requests for the aircraft from Abu Dhabi.

On Saturday night, in a primetime television address announcing that Israel would also be normalizing ties with Sudan, Netanyahu denied Gantz’s allegations, saying — as he has from the start — that there was no secret addendum to the UAE deal in which he agreed to the US selling the UAE F-35 fighter jets.

Netanyahu noted that Israel did not agree to pull its objections from the arms sales until Gantz returned from meetings in Washington on Friday, which appeared to serve as proof that the defense minister had indeed been party to the discussions.

After the premier’s remarks, Gantz fired back, repeating that Netanyahu had kept the Defense Ministry and relevant officials uninformed about the matter and saying this made his efforts in Washington more difficult.

“As defense minister, I say definitely that the defense establishment did not know and was not informed by the prime minister of negotiations regarding the supply of advanced weapon systems to the United Arab Emirates,” he said in a statement.

Nissenkorn said Sunday that he believed Gantz over Netanyahu.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper sign a joint statement in the Pentagon on October 22, 2020. (Shmulik Almani/Defense Ministry)

A senior Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity after the signing, told reporters on Thursday night that the document signed on Thursday was a general commitment by the US to maintain Israel’s military superiority but that discussions were ongoing over which specific weapons and systems Washington would provide Jerusalem to offset the sale of the F-35 to the UAE and other weapons to other countries in the region going forward.

Amos Gilead, a former top defense official, criticized the decision on Saturday night.

“Who can predict coups in the Middle East?” he asked at an anti-corruption rally in Tel Aviv, according to Ynet. “The prime minister has again made a decision, which he denies. I think it’s wrong to allow the UAE to be equipped with F-35s. Abu Dhabi is not a danger, but tomorrow others will get the plans and they’ll be turned on us. We can’t have that.

“We need a state commission of inquiry, so the same mistakes won’t be repeated,” he said, referring to the submarine bribery scandal.

MKs voted on Wednesday to form a commission of inquiry into the submarine scandal, but the vote was overturned by the coalition on a technicality.

Meanwhile, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday that a similar deal for the sale of American F-35 jets to the neighboring Gulf nations of Qatar and Saudi Arabia would likely go ahead sooner or later even though Israel has voiced objections.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I’m sure that if Qatar or the Saudis want it and are able to pay for it, eventually they will get it,” Steinitz told the Ynet news site.

“This is an assumption we need to take into account,” he said.

Earlier this month, Qatar reportedly asked the United States for permission to buy advanced F-35 stealth fighters, in a test of America’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s military edge in the region.

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen subsequently said that Israel would oppose any potential deal for the sale of American F-35 jets to Qatar.

A report last week said Israeli officials believe relations with Qatar are warming, after a deal was reportedly made to increase Qatari aid to the Gaza Strip.

The report said Israel believed Qatar views its positive contacts with Jerusalem as a way of getting back in the good graces of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar is being blackballed by the other members of the GCC — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — due to its attempts to remain close to Iran. The channel said officials even floated the notion of Qatar moving to normalize ties with Israel in the not-too-distant future.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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