In an apparent attempt to catch him off guard, police did not inform Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of time of their intention to question him Tuesday about a corruption investigation surrounding the purchase of submarines and naval vessels from a German shipbuilder, The Times of Israel has learned.
While media reports had suggested the questioning would focus on the Bezeq graft probe, in which Netanyahu is reportedly being treated as a suspect, investigators instead questioned the prime minister about the so-called Case 3000. It was the first time he had been confronted over the allegations in which several of his key confidants are implicated.
Netanyahu has never been named as a suspect in the case.
The investigation involves suspicions that state officials were paid bribes to influence a decision to purchase four patrol boats and three Dolphin-class submarines costing a total of 2 billion euros from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, despite opposition to the deal by the Defense Ministry.
According to a source familiar with the investigation, the efforts to keep the topic of questioning secret were purposeful and intended to catch Netanyahu off guard.
“He thought he would be answering questions about [his former adviser turned state’s witness Nir] Hefetz,” the source, who asked not to be named, said. “They blindsided him so that he wouldn’t have his answers prepared.”
The Bezeq probe, known as Case 4000, involves suspicions that Netanyahu, who has also served as communications minister for several years over his past two terms, advanced regulatory decisions benefiting Bezeq controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch in exchange for flattering coverage of the Netanyahus from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.
Netanyahu denies wrongdoing in the cases against him, including two other criminal probes.
New evidence provided to police by Hefetz reportedly shows that mutually beneficial actions by Netanyahu and Elovitch were not incidental — rather, both parties were fully aware that they were acting as part of an illicit quid pro quo deal.
Netanyahu and other parties involved in the investigation were told by police last week that the questioning would focus on “testimony collected from Hefetz relating to case 4000, but may also touch on other cases,” the source said.
That was understood to mean Cases 1000 and 2000, two other probes linked to Hefetz in which Netanyahu is a criminal suspect, they added.
Police declined to comment on the claims.
In Case 1000 — in which Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors — Hefetz reportedly provided investigators with names of additional patrons of the couple, seemingly strengthening the case that the alleged behavior was part of a pattern.
In Case 2000 — which involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes — Hefetz was said to have provided names of additional figures involved in the conversations between the two.
Following the questioning police said investigators had only focused on the submarine affair.
The police statement stressed that the prime minister had “given testimony,” as opposed to having been interrogated as a suspect, and the police commissioner has previously stressed that he is not being treated as one. But the apparently purposeful efforts to surprise Netanyahu with questions on Case 3000 suggest a wariness from police about his links to the other suspects.
Police are reportedly set to recommend indicting five suspects in the case, including Netanyahu’s former adviser and confidant Yitzchak Molcho and his personal lawyer and cousin David Shimron.
Police suspect that Molcho tried to push the submarine deal during his diplomatic trips abroad, while Shimron, Molcho’s legal partner, sought to promote the interests of the German shipbuilders within Israel.
Shimron has been questioned several times as part of the investigation by the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit. In addition to his work with Netanyahu, he served as a lawyer for Miki Ganor, who was ThyssenKrupp’s local representative and who turned state’s witness in July. Shimron is considered a key suspect in the case.
A spokesperson for the Netanyahu family said after the questioning that the prime minister “detailed all the professional considerations which guided his decision-making in the matter of the submarines and naval vessels, and their importance to the security of the country.”
Netanyahu reportedly told police he had been unaware of the ties of his personal lawyer and cousin David Shimron to the local representative of ThyssenKrupp.
“The prime minister welcomed the opportunity to clarify the complete picture and to finally put an end to the false claims that have been made against him by politicians and others,” the spokesperson said.
The family spokesman declined Wednesday to comment on whether the prime minister had known ahead of time that the questioning would focus on Case 3000 or what the apparent efforts to keep that information from him could mean.