What is the purpose of the Netanyahu 'submarine affair' inquiry? - analysis

What is the purpose of the Case 3000 state inquiry after years of delay and debate by both the prior and current government?

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his trial at the Jerusalem District Court last February.  (photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO/FLASH90)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a hearing in his trial at the Jerusalem District Court last February.
(photo credit: REUVEN KASTRO/FLASH90)

Leading into the nearly two years of election cycles Israel held between late 2019 and mid-2021, there seemed to be many reasons to have a state commission of inquiry into Case 3000, often referred to as the submarine affair.

But with Benjamin Netanyahu no longer in charge of such national security purchases and no longer even prime minister, and with a criminal trial underway against many of his former aides but without him, the issue has lost some of its saliency.

So what is the purpose of the Case 3000 state commission of inquiry announced on Sunday after years of delay and debate by both the prior and current government?

The inquiry will not be about corruption, bribery and skimming off the top some of the purchase price; that case has been before the Tel Aviv District Court since 2020 and 2021, depending on different groups of defendants (though due to an extended debate about how to handle classified information, witnesses still have not been called).

It will be about whether purchasing the submarines was the right policy and whether the right processes and sufficient feedback from the IDF and Defense Ministry were in place for arriving at the correct decision.

Investigate Now protesters call for the investigation of Case 3000 against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by sailing prop submarines on the Yarkon River. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)Investigate Now protesters call for the investigation of Case 3000 against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by sailing prop submarines on the Yarkon River. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)

For some politicians, the purpose is to take additional revenge on Netanyahu and try to further blacken his name and legacy, both to prevent him from returning and to make him suffer after he wielded so much power for so long.

For the military class, it is to right the wrong that was done to them when Netanyahu ignored their council on the issues in dispute and to ensure that future Defense Ministry and IDF senior command officers have more say in how the finite funding of the defense establishment gets spent.

But the current government’s decision to probe Netanyahu for purchasing an extra and unnecessary three new nuclear-powered submarines happened days after it decided to... purchase three new nuclear-powered submarines.

Sometimes the political attacks and counterattacks by political foes these days come close to being nonsensical bumper-sticker slogans. But in this case, when the Likud said its critics in the current government were doing exactly what Netanyahu did, and paying a higher price, they would seem to have a point.

This was noted by former Netanyahu national security council chief Jacob Nagel at a conference in February 2020, where he went head to head with former directors-general of the defense ministry, Amos Yaron and Ilan Biran, as well as former national security council adviser Uzi Arad, who were all slamming Netanyahu for criminal behavior in purchasing the submarines.

Two years before the current government agreed that three new submarines were needed, Nagel was saying the IDF and Israel Navy had all agreed that three old submarines would need to be replaced by 2027-2028.

In other words, he said critics who slammed Netanyahu for allegedly wanting the country to have nine nuclear-powered submarines misunderstood the basic premise that buying submarines seven, eight and nine was not to expand but to maintain a continuous fleet of six submarines even into the future.

Moreover, Nagel said even as the IDF opposed buying submarines seven, eight and nine in 2016, there were navy and IDF senior command officers who said the country would need six functioning submarines in the future.

Likewise, regarding Netanyahu openly or passively approving Germany selling submarines to Egypt, both Nagel and former national security council adviser Yaakov Amidror said there was a rationale for his behavior.

Amidror said supporting Egypt once President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took over from the Muslim Brotherhood could be seen as having special value. He also said if Egypt was expected to succeed in acquiring submarines anyway, it might be preferred that they acquire a design Israel was familiar with, as opposed to a less familiar design from Japan, France, South Korea or others.

It must also be stated that neither Nagel nor Amidror had anything in particular to gain from taking Netanyahu’s side in this fight against most of their colleagues in the defense establishment.

However, dig a bit deeper and there really were real problems.

The bribery scheme involving Miki Ganor started in 2009 and went through several rounds from then until 2016.

It is one thing to start the process to replace submarines in 2022 that will be retired in 2027; it is another thing entirely to do that in 2009 or 2016.

As more than 90% of the defense establishment has said regarding this dispute, there were a plethora of much more immediate defense challenges that Israel was having trouble affording during that time period – including facing Hamas cross-border attack tunnels, maintaining preparedness to bomb Iran and several other fronts.

Just because Netanyahu may not have committed a crime and might have had a rationale does not mean that it was proper management for him to ignore and do end-runs around both the IDF and the Defense Ministry.

The Defense Ministry’s point is even stronger than the IDF’s.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Sunday voted against the inquiry, saying she did not want to limit the political echelon’s maneuverability to overrule the IDF.

Supporters of Netanyahu have happily presented former Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who overruled the IDF in deciding to fund Iron Dome when the IDF top brass thought it was a waste of money.

But in the submarine affair, Netanyahu also hid his moves from then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and director-general Dan Harel.

So he was hiding major national security decisions not only from the IDF, but also from the top civilian authority experts on the issue.

Should the prime minister have that amount of unilateral power to not only trump but also conceal contacts he has with foreign countries over major national security decisions from both the military and the defense civilian leadership?

This is a separate question from whether Netanyahu was right or wrong to try to spend funds on the submarines in place of other national security needs.

In fact, Netanyahu has never really explained why he kept Ya’alon and Harel out of the loop other than he always seemed to want to take personal and total credit for foreign-affairs issues. (See how he kept then defense and foreign ministers Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, respectively, out of the Abraham Accords early developments.)

So the purpose of the inquiry should not be to define what is criminal, but what is proper management, and to better define where a prime minister can and should make the final call, even overriding others, and when he must consult other top officials, even if they disagree with him and may create political headaches.

Only then can such future national security decisions be cleansed of low-level politicization and be given the more serious attention they deserve.