My Word: Submarines and political battleships

Model submarines have been a constant feature of protests against Netanyahu and the case has always hovered just under the surface in public and political awareness.

 A protester walks on top of a mock submarine during a rally in Jerusalem against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June 2021, as the new government is sworn in. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A protester walks on top of a mock submarine during a rally in Jerusalem against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June 2021, as the new government is sworn in.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Submarines shouldn’t make waves, yet these subs have been splashed over front-pages for years and show no sign of reaching calmer waters. 

On Sunday, January 23, the government approved establishing a state commission of inquiry to look into the purchase of Israel Navy submarines under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The topic is popularly known as the submarine affair, or Case 3000. The case number says a lot. It infers that it is part of the ongoing criminal investigation into Netanyahu – Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 – although Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit (no fan of the former PM) did not find grounds to press charges against him regarding the subs deal with the Germany’s Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems corporation. 

Model submarines have been a constant feature of protests against Netanyahu and the case has always hovered just under the surface in public and political awareness, especially during the continual electioneering of the last few years.

The decision to launch the probe into the submarine affair itself raises questions. This is the point when I should humbly admit that I am only a long-retired corporal and the closest I got to serving on the seas was having been blessed by spending part of my service on a base with a private beach on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Israeli politics, on the other hand, I have followed closely for decades. This inquiry has a much more political feel to it than a military one. It is more like a political open season than about unseen activity in the open seas.

The timing of the decision to launch the state inquiry was awkward, to say the least. It came days after the current government approved the purchase of three more cutting-edge subs, at a vastly higher cost, 3 billion euros, partly funded by the German government. Most of the price hike stemmed from the delay in finalizing the deal, which itself was the result of the ongoing investigations into the Netanyahu-era purchases between 2009 and 2016. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in Haifa's port (credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in Haifa's port (credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

“I would like to thank the German government for its assistance in advancing the agreement and for its commitment to Israel’s security,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz. “I am confident that the new submarines will upgrade the capabilities of the Israel Navy, and will contribute to Israel’s security superiority in the region.” 

Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, has played a particular role in demanding the probe – or not, depending on his political fortunes and misfortunes. At times, a state commission of inquiry was an electoral promise of Gantz’s Blue and White party; other times, when it looked like he could seal a rotation deal with Netanyahu as alternate prime minister, the submarine affair was submerged.

Gantz is not alone in this. Several members of the current government, including Bennett, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Foreign Minister (and alternate prime minister) Yair Lapid, served under Netanyahu in various capacities but are now his bitter rivals. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the inquiry serves mainly as an attempt to torpedo Netanyahu’s chances of making a political comeback if he somehow survives all the other cases against him, or seals a plea bargain agreement.

Sunday’s discussion on establishing the probe was also unusual. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked voted against it, saying it is unprecedented for a government to set up an official state inquiry into actions of its predecessors. Bennett presented the request for the inquiry, but abstained in the vote. This might be seen as a balancing act to keep open a route to negotiations with the Likud in a post-Netanyahu era while not upsetting current partners. The desire of the “government of change” to do nothing to upset the vastly different coalition members has obvious drawbacks. It’s not all plain sailing.

It will take time to establish a commission of inquiry, especially as the sudden death this week of former chief justice Miriam Naor means that another retired Supreme Court justice or a similar figure will have to be appointed to take over the inquiry she was heading into the Meron disaster. It will also require money. State commissions of inquiry need funding as well as work hours. The question needs to be asked whether establishing a commission to probe the subs is worth the expense.

A state commission of inquiry is meant to examine the actions and circumstances surrounding an event in order to prevent a repeat of major failings. It is a moot point whether a panel investigating the previous government will serve this purpose. Keep in mind that there are ongoing court cases against those who, unlike Netanyahu, were indicted for alleged wrongdoing in the submarine affair. Even if it is found that Netanyahu acted improperly by sidestepping his defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, and the top echelon of the defense establishment to purchase the subs – for whatever reason – this situation is unlikely to recur.

In any event, the benefits of a commission of inquiry need to be judged not only by its recommendations, but by whether they are adopted and implemented. 

While the cabinet is in the mood for ostensibly checking good governance, I have other issues it might consider. The so-called Pensions Deal is high on my list. Under the recent agreement, the government retroactively approved a hike in pensions of former officers in the IDF and other security services. 

Pay for ordinary, conscripted soldiers, defined as subsistence costs rather than wages, remains measly. Even after a recent rise, the pay is, at best, about half the mandated minimum wage. IDF higher-ups, however, earn a very decent wage, and under longstanding agreements, are able to retire with a full pension from age 45. 

A Finance Ministry report published earlier this month showed that retired IDF officers receive an average monthly pension of NIS 19,400, compared to the average pension of NIS 7,900 per month for teachers, for example.

“There is no doubt that the main resource of the system is human capital,” said Kobi Bar-Nathan, the ministry’s director of Salary and Employment Agreements. “The data presented in the report indicate that wages in the defense establishment are high relative to the average wage in the economy, that wage and pension expenditures are a major part of the entities’ expenditures, and that there are very high wage gaps between the young who serve and veterans. We recognize the need to retain good people, but at the same time we disagree on the way to achieve this.”

One of the – valid – points against the submarine deals is that the budget is limited. If you spend on super subs and other naval vessels, you’ll have less money available to maintain the advantage of the air force, intelligence and cyber forces, Iron Dome and other missile systems, or research and development etc. And, of course, there will be less money for the equipment and conditions of the poor combat soldier with muddy boots on the ground whose work is still vital in 2022. Spending a vast proportion of the budget on pensions, particularly for those who are able to launch lucrative second careers, is not the best use of the limited resources. 

The politicization of the military must be avoided. The defense establishment needs to be able to take decisions out of security considerations alone, not with an eye on future political job opportunities and additional pensions. The prime minister must make decisions, period.

A recent Israel Democracy Institute report revealed that the IDF remains “the institution with the highest level of public trust, though it too has experienced a significant decline, from 90% in 2019 to 78% in October 2021.” The government earned only 27% trust, while faith in the Knesset was 21% and in political parties a mere 10%. 

The establishment of a state commission of inquiry into the submarine affair does nothing to relieve the sinking feeling that it all comes down to petty politics.

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