The members of a committee probing the co-called submarine scandal resigned on Tuesday, citing a dispute with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit regarding the scope of the powers of their inquiry.
Retired judge Amnon Straschnov, who is heading the panel, wrote to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who initiated the committee’s probe, and said its members would be stepping down over limitations to what they could do while a parallel criminal investigation into the scandal was underway.
“From the ongoing discussions on the committee’s powers between the Attorney General and defense officials and the representatives of the attorney general, I have learned that, in view of the criminal proceedings taking place in parallel, it is the opinion of the attorney general that real restrictions should be imposed on the work of the committee,” Straschnov wrote. “In this state of affairs, I am afraid that the committee is left with very limited powers.”
In response, Gantz wrote to Mandelblit and asked that he swiftly wrap up his investigation of the matter and allow new members to be appointed to the committee.
“In light of the great importance of the issue, I urge him to urgently complete the investigation process and allow the committee to begin work because it is an issue of paramount importance for security, the economy and the public,” Gantz wrote.
The resignation of the committee members came hours after the Knesset narrowly rejected a bill that would have deferred a deadline for passing the 2020 state budget, and thus set Israel on an almost certain course to its fourth general election in two years.
Gantz initially announced the inquiry last month in what was seen as a shot across the bow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his coalition partner. However, Mandelblit later asked Gantz to hold off on the inquiry until a criminal probe into the naval acquisitions scandal could be completed.
The submarine affair, also known as Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.
While several of Netanyahu’s close associates face charges in the case, which involves suspicions Israeli officials were bribed to push for the acquisitions of naval vessels and submarines from Thyssenkrupp, the prime minister has not been implicated and the attorney general has said he is not a suspect.
Netanyahu, who was accused by opposition lawmaker and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon of having led an improper effort to buy the submarines from Thyssenkrupp, has previously blocked a number of efforts to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry.
In announcing the inquiry, the defense minister’s office said in a statement that the committee would be specifically tasked with exploring the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in the purchase of the naval vessels, as well as that of the National Security Agency and the Defense Ministry.
The statement noted that Gantz had reached a decision on the establishment of the committee after holding numerous consultations with former senior members of the legal and security establishment, but the timing sparked accusations of it being politically motivated.
Apart from the vessels purchased by Israel, the scandal also involves the sale of two Dolphin-class submarines and two anti-submarine warships by Germany to Egypt, allegedly okayed by Netanyahu without consulting or notifying the Defense Ministry. Critics and rivals of Netanyahu allege he had a possible conflict of interest surrounding the massive deal for the vessels.
David Shimron, Netanyahu’s personal lawyer and second cousin, was originally suspected of mediating a bribery deal in the submarine case, but that charge was dropped by police and he is instead charged with money laundering. Avriel Bar-Yosef, Netanyahu’s one-time pick for national security adviser, faces charges of requesting a bribe, taking a bribe, fraud, and breach of trust.
Other prominent suspects in the case include Miki Ganor, Thyssenkrupp’s representative in Israel, who is being charged with bribery, money laundering, and tax offenses; Eliezer Marom, a former head of the Israeli Navy, who faces charges of bribery, money laundering and tax offenses; and David Sharan, a former aide to Netanyahu and to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was charged with bribery, breach of trust and money laundering.
In October, the state prosecution told the High Court of Justice that it believes there is no justification to open a criminal probe into Netanyahu over the matter.
Netanyahu is already on trial for fraud and breach of trust in three other cases, and bribery in one of them. He denies any wrongdoing and claims to be a victim of an attempted political coup involving the police, prosecutors, left-wing opposition and the media.