Minister of Defense Benny Gantz announced yesterday that he had decided to set up a government committee of inquiry to investigate the procurement by the Israel Navy of submarines and surface vessels, in accordance with his powers under the law.
In the past few weeks, the minister of defense has held many consultations with former senior people in the justice system and the defense establishment. In the light of those consultations, and the up to date information to which he has been exposed, Gantz reached the conclusion that a Ministry of Defense committee of inquiry could shed light on some of the processes that led to the procurement of the ships, and will be able to examine the procedures and the way in which agreements were concluded.
The committee will be headed by retired judge Amnon Straschnov, who was chief military prosecutor and also served as a judge in the Tel Aviv District Court. Alongside him, Gantz has appointed Yael Grill, formerly head of procurement in the Prime Minister's Office and head of the economic unit of the Ministry of Defense Production and Procurement Directorate, and General (res.) Avraham Ben-Shoshan, a former commander of the Israel Navy and military attaché at the Embassy of Israel in Washington DC.
Gantz was under pressure to appoint a committee of inquiry, both as a genuine investigative body to examine what happened in the procurement of the ships, and as a means of applying political pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz spoke about such an inquiry in the election campaigns of the past two years, and so the formation of the committee is by way of fulfilling his promise.
The committee's main work will be on the procurement of three new submarines from Germany, and the prime minister's demand for the preparation for the purchase of a fourth submarine. Netanyahu's critics claim that this was in order to promote the business interests of his cousin Nathan Milikowsky, who had business ties with ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, which is building the submarines. It is also claimed that Netanyahu hid some of the information relating to the procurement from the ministers of defense during the period concerned.
Gantz has given the committee four months to submit its final report. He instructed the committee to deal with the professional staff at the Ministry of Defense and stressed to its members that they were required to carry out their work independently, without intervention from politicians. He also said that, after requisite information security work had been done, the committee's conclusions would be published. Gantz's guidelines mean that neither former ministers of defense who were involved in the matter, nor the prime minister, who urged that the deals should be made to procure the submarines and other ships, will be summoned to testify.
The committee will not investigate the process that led to the prime minister's decision to approve the sale of advanced submarines built by ThyssenKrupp to Egypt. Netanyahu has admitted that he did not consult the minister of defense or the IDF on that matter.
The government committee of inquiry will have the power to summon anyone to give evidence on the procurement process. The minister of defense can also ask the minister of justice to endow the committee with the powers of an investigative committee. This requires approval by the government, so it is not something that will happen under the present government.
The committee's discussions will not be classified. It is expected to start work within a week or two.
The implication of Gantz's move is that his Blue & White party is sure that Israel is headed for an election, for it amounts to a poke in the eye for Netanyahu that his conduct should be the subject of an inquiry. The committee cannot subpoena witnesses, and it will gather materials and evidence mainly from within the defense establishment, which Gantz controls.
Publication of the committee's conclusions within four months means that they are likely to come in the midst of an election campaign, and there will presumably be leaks damaging to Netanyahu in the meantime.
Likud MK Miki Zohar said in response to the decision to hold an inquiry, "Gantz's decision to set up a committee of inquiry on the submarines issue is nothing less than an act of defiance against Likud and its head. Despite the fact that Gantz is well aware that Netanyahu had no hand in the submarines story, he is acting to smear his name, and in the process endangering the existence of the coalition. Today, we received proof that Gantz is forcibly dragging Israel to an election at the height of a global crisis. I find it unfortunate that instead of helping the prime minister in his efforts to bring vaccines for Israel's citizens, Gantz is occupied with wining back a few votes from Netanyahu's detractors."
Moshe Ya'alon, who as minister of defense opposed the procurement of the submarines, and whose Telem party split from the alliance with Gantz when the latter joined Netanyahu's government, said, "I congratulate Minister of Defense Benny Gantz on the decision to set up a government committee of inquiry into the affair of the procurement of submarines and surface ships. If the committee cannot compel Netanyahu and others to testify before it, there will be no avoiding a criminal investigation and/or a state investigative committee. Only a comprehensive and thorough investigation, without guidelines and without preconditions, will bring the truth to light."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 23, 2020
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