Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday said he would sue the leaders of the Blue and White party for libel after one top would-be MK suggested his behavior in a corruption case involving submarine purchases “could constitute treason.”
In a video posted to his Facebook account, the prime minister said the allegation was “severe incitement” and “a blood libel which cannot be allowed,” and went on to cite what he said were “the facts” of the case.
Moshe Ya’alon, who once served as defense minister under Netanyahu, made the accusation of possible “treason” on Wednesday in relation to a case that has seen several close associates of Netanyahu, but not the premier himself, suspected in a graft scheme in the multi-billion shekel state purchase of naval vessels from Germany.
“I’ve instructed my attorneys to sue [Blue and White leader] Benny Gantz and [Moshe] Ya’alon for slander,” Netanyahu said Friday. “The lies of [Yair] Lapid, Gantz and Ya’alon cross a red line on the most sensitive issues to the nation’s security.”
He said he would also have sued Lapid, but as a sitting lawmaker Lapid has parliamentary immunity. Lapid later said he was removing his immunity and invited the prime minister to sue him.
Netanyahu said: “Lapid, Gantz and Ya’alon are accusing me — I, who have devoted my life to the nation — they’re accusing me of betraying the nation. This is wild incitement… Shame on you.”
Gantz and Lapid have not used the term “treason” in connection with Netanyahu. However, Gantz this week called for a state commission of inquiry to probe the so-called submarine affair, after fresh allegations emerged that Netanyahu may have earned millions of shekels off the deal.
On Monday, in their first full press conference since launching the party, Blue and White’s top echelon accused Netanyahu of being implicated in “the greatest security-related corruption case in the history of the State of Israel.”
The claims relate to the revelation that Netanyahu once held shares in Texas-based SeaDrift Coke, a company later acquired by a supplier of ThyssenKrupp, the German shipbuilder at the center of the corruption probe.
Opponents have alleged a possible conflict of interest on the part of the premier. 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.
Ya’alon’s charge of treason appears to be directed at a subplot in the affair — Netanyahu’s green-lighting of Germany’s sale of submarines to Egypt, which critics have said potentially puts national security at risk. Lapid has also said in the past that Netanyahu approved the deal between Germany and Egypt, without notifying then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. A former top defense official reportedly recently testified that he too was caught off guard by the move.
Read a primer on the affair and Netanyahu’s connection to it here
“Here are the facts,” Netanyahu said in Friday’s video. “There is no connection between the shares I bought and sold years ago and the purchase of submarines that took place years later. This purchase was decided upon by the cabinet for security considerations only.
“In 2007, when I was a Knesset member and not a member of the government, I invested in a private firm with specialty technology. This company does not make submarines. It doesn’t make steel. It doesn’t even make the electrodes used to make steel. This company is as far from submarine construction as east is from west.”
He went on: “In 2010 I sold my shares in the company. This was a year and a half before Israel signed the deal to buy the first submarine during my term. It was two years before the Germans sold submarines to the Egyptians. So there was no connection between the issues. It’s libel.”
On Thursday Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu made a return of over 700 percent on the stocks in SeaDrift, having bought them for $400,000, before selling them in 2010 to his cousin, US businessman Nathan Milikowsky, for $4.3 million. That stark difference has led to speculation of possible impropriety in Netanyahu’s financial dealings.
“I identified that this was a good investment,” Netanyahu said Friday. “When I bought shares in the company others bought shares too. We all paid the same price per share. Without any benefits or discounts. Everything was reported at the time, with full transparency, to the authorities. I paid taxes according to law. There’s nothing new here.”
Netanyahu repeated his assertion that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had already examined in full his actions and decisions in relation to the Israeli and Egyptian submarines, and had found no wrongdoing. “These were professional decisions made according to national security considerations,” he said.
He suggested that the matter of the Egyptian submarines was tied to national security issues which he could not publicly discuss but which Mandelblit, and security officials, were aware of. His opponents, he said, knew and were taking advantage of the fact that “I can’t share all the facts with you, the citizens of Israel, and I cannot reveal to you the fullness of their lie.”
In a response video Friday evening, Lapid said Netanyahu’s video was itself filled with lies. He asserted that no one in Blue and White had called the prime minister “a traitor.” As for Netanyahu’s comment that he would sue Lapid if he did not have immunity, Lapid said: “I am notifying you here and now, I am removing my immunity. Sue me.”
He added: “I’m glad you’re relying on the fact that the attorney general said at the beginning of the affair that you are not a suspect. But we both know that since that time you have been called to give testimony, and we both know that the attorney general did not know at the time that you received NIS 16 million from a company tied to ThyssenKrupp.”
Lapid added wryly that he was “happy to find that you trust the attorney general so completely, in which case you certainly also trust him deciding to indict you on bribery, fraud and breach of trust.”
Ya’alon, Blue and White’s No. 3 — who, like his party’s leader, Benny Gantz, is a former IDF chief of staff — told Israel Radio Wednesday that it was possible that Mandelblit had been deterred from pursuing charges against the prime minister “by someone who said Israel’s security would be harmed if corruption is discovered in the case, because in that case Germany won’t be able to sell us submarines.”
Ya’alon, who served as defense minister under Netanyahu in 2013-2016, said he had written a letter to Mandelblit asking him to investigate the matter.
“This issue is so important that it could even amount to treason,” he charged in the radio interview.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak repeated Ya’alon’s allegation in an interview later Wednesday morning with Army Radio, saying the case “bordered on treason.”
“The attorney general announced already at the beginning of the investigation that Netanyahu isn’t connected to anything,” Barak said. “This is why there is a fear that the attorney general is protecting the prime minister.
Separately, last month, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery fraud and breach of trust in three other cases. The prime minister denies the allegations, and says the cases are part of a political witch hunt designed to oust him, involving the left, the media and the police pressuring a weak attorney general.
While a sitting Israeli prime minister has never been this close to indictment before, Netanyahu is not obligated to resign at this stage. The planned indictment is still subject to a hearing, during which Netanyahu can plead his case before formal charges are filed. That process will take place after April 9 elections, likely before July, according to the Justice Ministry.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.