Analysis: Is submarines corruption probe closing in on Netanyahu?

Can he continue to remain a non-suspect when so many of his close advisers are getting deeper and deeper into the scandal?

Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses Knesset, October 2017 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses Knesset, October 2017
Did the intense questioning this week of David Shimron and Isaac Molcho, top advisers to the prime minister, bring the submarines affair closer to the premier’s door? And with Benjamin Netanyahu being questioned Thursday about Case 1000, the “gifts affair,” and Case 2000, the “Israel Hayom” affair – for the first time being confronted with new testimony from former top aide and state’s witness Ari Harow and others – is the end in sight on those two cases? The short answer to the first question is: maybe, but not yet.
The short answer to the second question is: confronting Netanyahu with Harow’s testimony is a critical phase – the beginning of the end of the probe – but months could still pass before the police make a recommendation and quite a while before Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit decides.
Breaking down these answers is more complex.
Netanyahu says Israel Naval submarine contract with Germany is only for strengthening security , amid corruption probe , Nov.23.16 (credit: REUTERS)
First, regarding Shimron and Molcho, who have acted as de facto foreign ministers and key domestic negotiators on Netanyahu’s behalf on crucial issues – and are also law partners and brothers-in-law – what are the allegations against them?
Case 3000, the submarines affair, revolves around the purchase of submarines from the German company Thyssen- Krupp with Israeli negotiator Miki Ganor, now the state’s key witness in that case, and several other top national security officials being accused of trying to skim money off the top.
According to leaked reports, the allegations against Shimron are that he worked for Ganor and illegally lobbied defense officials on behalf of ThyssenKrupp for a €1.5 billion submarine sale to Israel.
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and others have said these deals were very expensive and unnecessary. Netanyahu has retorted that he wanted the deals locked in before a possible change of power in Germany.
Benjamin Netanyahu dismissive of corruption allegations on January 2, 2017
While Shimron’s associates emphasize he was only paid a standard fee and say he did not engage in anything illegal, Ganor has said that in some scenarios Shimron could have been paid a more substantial sum, and that he used his closeness to Netanyahu for personal benefit.
The newest allegations are against Molcho, with leaked reports indicating that Ganor said Molcho met with him and offered to help get the deals approved illegally by wielding his closeness to Netanyahu.
Molcho admitted that he met with Ganor, but said he told Ganor that he only had a strong influence on US and Palestinian issues, not on European ones.
Another point of debate is whether Molcho knew about what Shimron was doing in the case. Molcho was supposed to be “walled off” from Shimron and their law firm’s actions whenever he was working on issues of state.
If he knew details about what Shimron was doing on Ganor’s behalf as part of their law firm, beyond that Shimron represented Ganor, then he would have violated his conflict of interest agreement allowing him to work for the state.
So far there are no allegations of Molcho getting illegal funds for his work. But the more he is connected with trying to help Shimron in work that might be illegal, the less that formality matters.
Even with all of this, Netanyahu is still not a suspect in the case.
Reports were contradictory about whether police would question him about the submarines affair on Thursday as a non-suspect witness or whether they would stick to cases 1000 (“gifts”) and 2000 (“Israel Hayom”).
Can he continue to remain a non-suspect when so many of his close advisers are getting deeper and deeper into the scandal? Is being ignorant of their activities still plausible? The way that Attorney-General Mandelblit has run the case, Netanyahu will not become a suspect unless a document or witness directly point a finger at him. Ganor has taken down around a dozen top national security officials, but has not yet gone after Netanyahu.
This means that if the prime minister was involved in anything illegal, for which there is no concrete evidence, the state would need to get Shimron or Molcho to turn against him to save themselves – a tall order, though maybe not impossible after watching Harow take such a turn.
This brings us to Netanyahu’s most current and serious problem – Case 1000, the gifts affair. Sources familiar with the case have said that Harow did not give the state a knockout incrimination against the prime minister, but he did fill in details that will make it easier for police to try to catch Netanyahu regarding any inaccuracies from his first round of questioning.
That is what makes Thursday’s interrogation of the prime minister, though the fifth one, so crucial.
Netanyahu’s “there will be nothing because there is nothing” mantra has now been pressed into having to explain why he tried to help businessman Arnon Milchan get a US visa and why the prime minister tried to get the mogul a much higher offer for his shares as a partial owner of Channel 10.
He has said that Milchan’s visa got held up because of media reports attacking the businessman for helping with Israeli national security and that the prime minister tried to help increase the Channel 10 purchase price to get foreign investment into Israel’s economy.
But even if Netanyahu has an alternative narrative, as soon as a possible quid pro quo is in the picture, there is more pressure on Mandelblit to indict and let the courts work out what happened.
In Case 2000, the new details from Harow also reportedly led to Israel Hayom owner Sheldon Adelson confirming that Netanyahu discussed with him the possibility of canceling the newspaper’s weekend edition.
This could prove that the prime minister was trying to seal the deal he made with Yediot Aharonot owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes.
Netanyahu has not fully countered this new development yet. Still, in the past, he said that the entire interaction was an elaborate game he was playing with Mozes, which never led to anything anyway.
While the police may want to move ahead with Case 1000 even as they still work on Case 2000, Mandelblit has indicated that he will decide all of the prime minister’s cases at once and not piecemeal.
This is exactly what he did with the criminal investigations into Sara Netanyahu, with his description of his decisions making it clear that some of them had been reached earlier than others.
The attorney-general complained in frustration last week that he is under attack from all sides.
That, and his announcement that he plans to indict Sara Netanyahu, mean that the prime minister has no absolute immunity, even if Mandelblit is not excited about indicting him.
It also means that Netanyahu’s answers on Thursday and in the coming round against the new Harow-inspired details will be decisive for the fate of his leadership.