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Security, not cronyism, behind submarine deal, PM insists

Amid growing calls for an investigation, Netanyahu says defense concerns were ‘only consideration’ for multi-billion shekel plan to purchase German vessels

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on November 20, 2016. (Emil Salman/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on November 20, 2016. (Emil Salman/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday denied allegations that personal interests played a role in a multi-billion shekel deal to purchase German submarines, saying bolstering Israel’s long-term security needs was his “only consideration” for the purchases.

The statement came as the prime minister has found himself icnreasingly under fire, with some lawmakers demanding an investigation after it was revealed that Netanyahu’s personal lawyer represents the German shipbuilder selling Israel the vessels.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or conflict of interest amid a tangle of claims and counter-claims by former and current defense officials over whether the submarines were actually needed.

“The security of Israel necessitates the purchase of new submarines, and the renewal of the naval fleet,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday.

“These strategic weapons systems guarantee [the navy’s] future, and I assure you, will safeguard the existence of Israel for the coming decades,” he said. “Strengthening the security of Israel was my only consideration in deciding to purchase the submarine. It is the consideration that always guides me and no other.”

On Tuesday, Channel 10 reported the prime minister’s longtime attorney David Shimron had a stake in the NIS 6 billion ($1.5 billion) defense deal with the German shipbuilder.

According to the report, Shimron serves as a local representative of the Germany-based conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, and Netanyahu in recent months has been pushing for Israel to buy several ThyssenKrupp submarines against the will of the IDF and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Over the weekend, opposition MKs demanded an official investigation be launched to review the allegations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's lawyer and coalition negotiator David Shimron (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer and coalition negotiator David Shimron (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

On Saturday, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to open a criminal investigation into the Netanyahu-backed deal, while Mertetz’s Michal Rozin urged the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to hold an “urgent” hearing to review the matter.

Ya’alon last week also urged a “thorough probe by the relevant authorities” into the “very disturbing” allegations made in the report.

Last month, Netanyahu announced in a cabinet meeting that Israel was in the process of negotiating the purchase of three new submarines for the Israeli Navy, which currently maintains a fleet of five underwater vessels, with another slated to be delivered in coming years.

The new submarines — valued at around NIS 6 billion ($1.5 billion) — were intended as replacements for the military’s older models.

But according to Channel 10, neither Ya’alon, who served as defense minister when the deal was first proposed, nor the IDF was in favor of purchasing the new submarines — somewhat of a change of pace in the normal narrative of the defense establishment fighting for acquisitions — as the decision did not fit with the Defense Ministry’s multi-year plan for the army.

Shimron’s alleged involvement has raised questions about a possible conflict of interest for both him and the prime minister, especially given Netanyahu’s determination to complete the deal despite the reported IDF opposition.

Benjamin Netanyahu touring the INS Tanin submarine as it arrived in Israel on September 23, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu touring the INS Tanin submarine as it arrived in Israel on September 23, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ FLASH90)

Netanyahu is said to have started dealings with the German government without informing Ya’alon, who only learned of the plan after news of it leaked out.

Apparently furious, the then-defense minister sparred with Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office, with the two reportedly shouting at one another over the issue.

Ya’alon succeeded in torpedoing the plan, but once he stepped down as defense minister in May, Netanyahu renewed the negotiations with the Germans for the new submarines.

After the report aired last Tuesday, Netanyahu denied that he had any prior knowledge of Shimron being involved in the deal, and said the negotiations were done in an “orderly, professional manner with no outside influence and with the recommendation of all the professional bodies in the Defense Ministry, the IDF and the National Security Council.”

Shimron also denied a conflict of interest, saying he “did not discuss these matters with the prime minister,” and denied any effort to influence a decision over the deal.

According to a Channel 2 report, the state prosecution’s office announced that it would look into the matter.

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