January 18, 2019

What could sink with Israel’s submarine corruption affair

The submarine affair or scandal – every newspaper and television show chooses a different slogan – is serious. It is more than serious; it’s heartbreaking. The details we have are not many. The police are investigating. Suspects are being detained – six yesterday, another one this morning. The story is simple: a bribe was paid to people whose role was to make Israel buy German submarines. And these people – the ones detained, investigated, mentioned – are not just people. They are the prime minister’s lawyer (and relative), the deputy head of the National Security Agency, the chief of the navy. Important, influential people, who had access to the top institutions and leaders.

You can dive into the details, learn the names of all those involved, try to untangle the web of connections. Or you can look at the bigger picture.

This case is tagged case 3000, to differentiate it from case 1000 – involving allegations that businessmen gave lucrative gifts to Netanyahu and his wife – and case 2000 – concerning Netanyahu’s alleged offer to the publisher of Israel’s Yedioth Daily to help in reducing the readership of rival paper Israel Hayom in exchange for more favorable coverage. And indeed, it is a different story. First, because the PM’s involvement has not yet been established. Second, because this is not about petty things and small favors. Submarines are expensive – one of the most expensive items a country buys. Submarines play a crucial role in Israel’s strategic defense – they are, according to many publications, Israel’s tool for a “second strike” if one is needed. The process of purchasing such war machines ought to be business like, professional, sober, almost sacred. We can tolerate politicians and mediators and dealers in lesser processes. We know that the mix of politics and business is an invitation for shady characters.

But we’d like to think that some decisions, some processes, can be insulated from these problematic influences. We’d like to think that when it comes to the decisions most crucial to Israel’s defense, no shticks will be tolerated.

What is the possible story unfolding in front of our eyes in this case? It is a story of a businessman that pays his way into representing a German manufacturer and then pressuring the government, assisted by the high-ranking people whom he (allegedly) paid to help him become the middleman, to purchase submarines from the company he represents.

To be clear: there’s a need to wait for the investigation to end before we have all the details. But if true – and one still hopes it’s not true, or only half true – this is not just corruption. This is traitorous. It is selling Israel’s vital interests for money.

And of course, this is not just a criminal affair – it is also a political affair. Some of the people under investigation are very close to the prime minister. His lawyer for all things in whom he has the utmost trust. His appointee – to the puzzlement of many – to become the national security advisor. So the question concerning the PM’s involvement is inevitable. And if not involvement, neglect. And if not neglect, sloppiness. And if not sloppiness, association.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a man pushed out by Prime Minister Netanyahu, but known for being a straight shooter and incorruptible, accused Netanyahu of possible involvement in this affair. “I had never suspected that he was corrupt,” he said about the PM. “But then he went behind the back of the chief of staff and the head of the navy to sign the deal with (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel, when the whole professional consensus — from the navy to the Defense Ministry — was that we needed five submarines, not six.”

Is this proof that Netanyahu was involved in any shady deals? Hardly. For the prime minister to decide against the advice of some of the top professionals would not be a first (ask former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who battled with the professionals over developing Iron Dome). Netanyahu can say: this is what I thought was right, disregarding the advice of the military, or the whispers of other people around me. The question remains: were there such whispers? Were there senior assistants to the Prime Minister rooting for a deal because they were hoping to make a profit from it?

If the answer to this question is positive, Israelis will be justified in feeling angry, disappointed, disillusioned, suspicious. If the answer to this question is positive, more than one crime was committed. There is the simple, clear crime of taking or handing bribes. There is the more complicated crime – the crime of eroding Israel’s confidence in its defense establishment. An establishment in which we entrust our lives. The second crime is graver than the first crime.