Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a joint declaration with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 16, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

The submarine scandal and Israel’s ‘military-industrial complex’


Israel’s submarine corruption affair (latest updates: the deal is suspended, there are negotiations with potential state witness) is a devastating blow to Israel, whether the Prime Minister is involved in it or not. It is devastating, as I wrote a week ago, because it erodes “Israel’s confidence in its defense establishment, an establishment in which we entrust our lives.” As the affair captures the headlines in Israel – it is really the only game in the news business at the moment – it teaches us a lot about Israel, about its politics, security, and media culture. About its inability to conduct a sober and business-like conversation about a complicated matter. About its sometimes-problematic mix of the personal and the official.

Here are a few additional comments about this affair and its current state.

1.

We don’t know what happened. Investigators are busy figuring it out, and many of the reports by the media are speculation or manipulation. We do know that something is fishy with one of the most significant defense deals in Israel’s history. It is very likely that private interests were mixed with national interests in unacceptable ways. In other words: there were people thinking about what they can gain if Israel purchases submarines rather than only thinking about whether Israel needs to purchase submarines.

2.

This affair is devastating, but should not come as huge surprise. The famous Eisenhower warning from the “military-industrial complex” is hardly limited to the US. Israel has a military. It has a defense industry. It has middlemen and shady dealers. It has people thinking about their own personal gain – and convincing themselves that their gain is also the country’s gain. In short: it has all the ingredients necessary for incubating corruption of the type we are now dealing with.

Luckily – it also has a police, government attorneys, and courts. And a competitive, nasty, biting, media.

3.

It is important to see what was the real reach of corruption. It is one thing to see a former general making problematic maneuvers, and quite another to have the Prime Minister making decisions based on corrupt considerations. One thing seems already highly problematic: Israelis close to the PM were involved in some way in this problematic affair. So maybe the PM did not know. And maybe his considerations were all pure. And maybe he had nothing to do with the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is under investigation. One thing he did not do: He did not make sure to work in an environment that makes its incomprehensible to even consider corruption as an option.

4.

The PM is surrounded by private lawyers who work for him, advise him, and are sent by him to sensitive diplomatic missions. These private lawyers also have financial interests. They have clients. They have businesses. No matter how strict they are in maintaining a wall of separation between their services for the PM and their service for their private firms – it is an unhealthy situation. Yes, it is convenient for the PM (because he wants these advisors); it is convenient for the lawyers (because they want to keep making money while they help their country); and, in some ways, it is also good for the public (because the public wants the PM to have the best advisors he can find – and if government salaries can’t provide him with such advisors, the use of private lawyers is understandable). Still, it is a situation that needs to be strictly monitored. And the submarine affair could serve as a trigger to improve the level of monitoring.

5.

The media is interested in this affair mostly as long as it threatens the Prime Minister. That’s why we are seeing such hype. That’s why we are seeing such enthusiasm and anger. That’s why we are seeing the affair becoming such a ratings magnet. If Netanyahu is not involved, this will become another very important yet somewhat boring story.

Is the PM involved? Does this affair put his political career at risk? It is much too soon to know for sure, but if you need to bet on it, I advise caution. All other affairs in which Netanyahu is now a suspect – the deal with a newspaper magnet, the ties with wealthy people and the gifts they were giving him, the use of state money for petty largesse – all these seem within character. All these might not have been a crime – but they were also not things to be proud of and are things Netanyahu is known for. To put it bluntly: we have known for quite a while that the PM is a little cheap.

The submarine affair is a different matter. This is corruption in high places. This is putting one’s own interest before the country’s security.  This is a surprise. That is, if Netanyahu is found to be involved in it.

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