The Israeli Supreme Court on Monday convened to discuss one of the most controversial and severe corruption cases the country has faced in its history.
A panel of three justices heard petitions by several rights groups and activists, who demanded that the court order the establishment of a special investigative committee to formally look into what has come to be known as the Submarine Affair.
The sordid business includes the alleged transfer of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes to top military and government officials in Israel by the German shipyard ThyssenKrupp, in return for Israel’s purchase of more German-made submarines and other naval vessels than were deemed necessary by the Israeli Navy, itself.
While the case, investigated by police and prosecuted by the state, is currently ongoing in the lower courts against several senior Israeli figures, including a former commander of the Navy and a former deputy chief of the National Security Council, petitioners are requesting that a special independent panel look into the matter, and perhaps most importantly – investigate Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
One man has taken this country hostage, not only in financial and social issues but apparently in matters of security and defense – the most sacred areas
As the justices heard arguments inside the chamber Monday, hundreds gathered on the streets outside the Jerusalem courthouse to make their voices heard.
Protesters outside the Israeli Supreme Court chant “Investigation now!” Jerusalem, Jan. 25, 2021. (Uri Cohen/The Media Line)
“We’re here to make sure our justice system operates the way it should and does what it’s here for,” Ariel, 48, told The Media Line.
“One man has taken this country hostage, not only in financial and social issues but apparently in matters of security and defense – the most sacred areas. What’s the reason for not thoroughly investigating this? What are they afraid of?” he demanded.
Shortly after the story broke and the police investigation began over four years ago, Israel’s top law enforcement officials assured the public that Netanyahu was not a suspect in the case and would not be questioned. This, despite the fact that some of the prime minister’s closest advisers and allies, including his personal lawyer and his chief of staff, were suspected and eventually charged in the case.
This is the worst corruption case in the history of this country. You want to tell me everyone knew about this except Netanyahu?
Netanyahu’s critics and political rivals, along with a slew of former military generals and security officials, have since insisted the decision not to question the prime minister was unfathomable, stressing that it was impossible for the state’s top figure to be unaware of such extreme irregularities regarding defense procurement deals.
“This is the worst corruption case in the history of this country. You want to tell me everyone knew about this except Netanyahu?” Anat, 63, told The Media Line.
“I’ve joined this movement practically from the beginning, when we demonstrated outside [Attorney General Avichai] Mandelblit’s house, demanding he open this case,” she says. “It’s incredible, the fact that [Netanyahu] could get away with such crimes.”
She and her friends have since taken to the streets, holding mass protests over the past year in front of the prime minister’s official Jerusalem residence and on bridges and intersections across the country.
The demonstrations quickly merged with other anti-Netanyahu protests. The prime minister’s ongoing criminal trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in entirely different matters, and his botched pandemic response, drew tens of thousands to the streets every week.
The mass rallies, at times leading to violent confrontations with police, have since died down somewhat. Protesters claim it was their persistence that brought down Netanyahu’s latest government last month, and that the coming March elections will bring an end to his reign.
“Precisely 53 years ago today, the Israeli submarine Dakar sunk with its 69 crew members on board,” Eliad Shraga, head of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, told protesters outside the courthouse Monday.
“I was just a boy then but I promised myself I would never let another submarine be attacked by our enemies and sink to the bottom of the sea!” he shouted, alluding to allegations claiming Netanyahu authorized the sale of advanced German submarines to neighboring Egypt without the knowledge of Israel’s Defense Ministry or military, for his and his associates’ personal gain.
“We need a committee to investigate the worst corruption case in this country’s history! You are the real patriots; you are our heroes!” Shraga told the few hundred people lining the streets.
By law, a special investigative panel, headed by a former Supreme Court justice, holds subpoena powers like few other bodies in Israel, and could presumably question the prime minister and any of his associates.
While it can only be established by the government, which over the past decade has been ruled by Netanyahu, Monday’s petition asks the Supreme Court to instruct the attorney general to order the committee’s creation.
The panel, if formed, could also look into documents and suspicions that have been raised in recent years and not pursued by the police, regarding Netanyahu’s conduct prior to the purchase of the vessels.
Past panels include the post-1973 Yom Kippur War committee, which brought about the end of Golda Meir’s government, and the 1995 committee that investigated the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. There have been just 18 such panels established in the nation’s 73 years.
In November, Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s political rival, announced the formation of a Defense Ministry investigative panel, a less powerful body with limited subpoena power, to look into the Submarine Affair.
The move was largely seen as a political ploy used by Gantz to gain leverage during the two’s negotiations over government issues. It has since been disbanded and reassembled, its future in doubt.
After adjourning on Monday, the Supreme Court is expected to publish its decision in the coming weeks.