Ex-defense minister Ya'alon, ex-Mossad chief Cohen also warned

‘Submarine affair’ inquiry finds Netanyahu’s decisions compromised national security

Commission warns premier and 4 former defense officials that findings of probe may harm their interests; gives notice so they can submit additional testimony, view evidence

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen at a welcoming ceremony for a new submarine, Rahav, at the Israeli navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO /File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen at a welcoming ceremony for a new submarine, Rahav, at the Israeli navy base in Haifa, on January 12, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO /File)

A state commission of inquiry investigating the so-called submarine affair on Monday sent warning notices to five individuals it believes may be negatively impacted by the probe, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Navy chief Ram Rothberg, in order to allow them to submit additional testimony and view evidence relating to their conduct.

Netanyahu, the commission charged, took decisions that endangered national security and harmed Israel’s foreign relations.

The commission, formed under former premier Naftali Bennett in 2022, has spent more than two years probing submarine and naval vessel purchases that occurred under a previous Netanyahu government.

Israel purchased the vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp in a series of murky deals worth some $2 billion that have been under scrutiny for possible corruption and bribery.

According to an 11-page statement released by the commission on Monday, during his term as prime minister between 2009 and 2016, Netanyahu made decisions with “significant implications for security” without an orderly decision-making process, bypassed his own government in order to come to agreements with Germany on a series of political, security and economic issues, and made defense purchases “without orderly staff work [while] deviating from the operational needs established by the government.”

Netanyahu additionally excluded relevant security bodies from the decision-making process when dealing with “sensitive political-security questions,” avoided documenting meetings, and “created parallel and conflicting channels of action, thereby endangering national security and harming Israel’s foreign relations,” the commission stated in its decision.

Netanyahu gave testimony to the police in connection with the deals, as well as later testifying to the commission of inquiry, and several of his close associates were indicted for their involvement in the negotiations. Protests calling for an investigation into the prime minister’s role in the scandal erupted in 2016 when the affair surfaced and continued on and off in the years before the probe was established.

File – Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside a court hearing on the submarine affair, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

To date, the panel has reviewed tens of thousands of documents and heard testimony from “individuals including prime ministers, defense ministers, senior military officials, Defense Ministry staffers and other relevant government employees.”

According to the commission, Netanyahu pushed for the purchase of an advanced Dolphin-class submarine for the Israeli Navy, its sixth, based on “unfounded assumptions” and in deviation from the needs of the country. He also avoided discussing the economic consequences that were presented to him and unilaterally tried to increase the fleet by replacing older submarines with new ones while excluding the security establishment from the decision-making process.

The document added that the prime minister promoted the purchase of two Sa’ar 6 warships from Germany without the involvement of the defense establishment and without following proper procedures.

In addition to Netanyahu and Rothberg, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and former National Security Council employee Avner Simchoni received warning letters from the commission.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring the INS Tanin submarine, built by the German firm Thyssenkrupp, as it arrived in Israel on September 23, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

In a statement on behalf of Netanyahu after the warnings were announced on Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office said that “the submarines are a central pillar of Israel’s national security and in ensuring its existence against Iran, which is trying to destroy us.”

“Not only does the acquisition of the submarines not harm the security of the country – it ensures its existence,” the statement said, adding that “history will prove that Prime Minister Netanyahu was right on this issue as well and made the right decisions for the security of Israel.”

In response, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid charged that Netanyahu is “a danger to Israel’s security.”

“So it was with the case of the submarines, so it was with the Mount Meron disaster, so it was regarding all of the conduct that led to and caused the October 7 massacre,” he said.

Earlier this year, a state commission of inquiry named Netanyahu as one of a number of officials responsible for the 2021 Meron disaster, in which 45 people were killed in a crush at the hilltop gravesite of a second-century sage in northern Israel. The inquest did not propose sanctions for Netanyahu due to his position, but said it was reasonable to assume that the prime minister had been warned that the site was dangerous.

Former IDF generals attend a protest demanding a commission of inquiry for the so-called submarine affair, outside the home of then-alternate prime minister Yair Lapid, in Tel Aviv, January 7, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The state commission of inquiry into the submarine deals, the most serious type of Knesset commission, is charged with evaluating the procedures and decision-making employed by the political leadership related to the sensitive procurement. Granted broad powers to call witnesses and compel testimony, it runs a quasi-judicial process that can result in recommendations for further action against both individuals and public sector bodies.

Noting that the individuals mentioned in the document were listed according to seniority rather than severity, the commission’s letter to Ya’alon said that the former IDF chief of staff may be negatively impacted by the inquiry, but he was the only one of the five officials that did not receive a critical statement about his conduct.

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon speaks at a protest supporting opening a committee of inquiry into the submarine affair, outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, January 23, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Cohen, the commission said that the former Mossad chief’s conduct in the purchase of the submarines “resulted in the serious disruption of work processes and force building, and harmed the decision-making process in a series of sensitive issues, thereby jeopardizing national security and harming the foreign relations and economic interests of the State of Israel.”

Similarly, the commission wrote that Rothberg’s conduct reflected “a deviation from the norms of conduct required by an IDF commander,” also charging that the former navy chief had jeopardized national security.

Simchoni, according to the inquiry, “contravened proper administrative arrangements and accepted work arrangements in the civil service,” harming “decision-making processes in key issues of national security, foreign relations and economic interests of the State of Israel.”

The commission, headed by former Supreme Court president Asher Grunis, emphasized that the warnings were sent “based on the situational analysis as it appears before the commission at this time, based on the material before it,” and that the conclusions may change once the inquiry is complete.

The panel also comprises former Supreme Court justice Zvi Zylbertal, former Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug, former Israel Navy commander Avraham Ben-Shoshan and former Israeli Air Force procurement division head Jacob Burtman.

Israeli sailors on board the Sa’ar-6-class corvette INS Magen salute as the vessel is handed over to the Israeli Navy in a ceremony in Germany on November 11, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The probe concerns four deals involving Israel and Thyssenkrupp. The first was the purchase of the sixth Dolphin-class submarine, which arrived in Israel in 2019. The second deal, to purchase three more submarines, was delayed when it faced pushback from then-defense minister Ya’alon, who said Israel did not need more submarines.

The third deal being investigated was the purchase of four Sa’ar 6-class corvettes to protect Israel’s offshore gas assets, also from Thyssenkrupp. A tender for supplying four 1,200-ton ships yielded bids from South Korean, Italian and other German shipbuilders, but was abruptly canceled in 2016 and the government handed the project exclusively to Thyssenkrupp.

The final deal connected to the affair is Egypt’s purchase of two Dolphin-class submarines, similar to the ones the Israeli Navy has, and two anti-submarine warships. Cairo ordered the naval vessels in 2014. Though Germany does not require Israeli permission to sell the advanced submarines to other countries, it has shown Jerusalem that courtesy in order to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge in the region.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and President Reuven Rivlin, left, at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, May 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

In 2015, Ya’alon asked president Reuven Rivlin, who was meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel, to inquire why the sale was going ahead despite the fact that he had not approved it, given that he was defense minister at the time. Merkel reported that Israel had indeed greenlit it, and years later during criminal proceedings, Amos Gilad, who was the director of policy and political-military affairs in the Defense Ministry at the time, told police that Netanyahu had approved the deal without consulting or notifying the ministry.

Netanyahu has denied approving the German-Egyptian deal and has contended that his push for the submarine and warship purchases was for the sole reason of protecting Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat and ensuring it will have the option of a counterattack available at all times.

Tal Schneider and Michael Bachner contributed to this report. 

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