German sub scandal: Israel PM Netanyahu in hot water as lawyer faces conflict of interest probe

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the Israeli Navy's fleet © Baz Ratner
Israel's attorney-general has opened a probe into an alleged scandal involving the purchase of German submarines, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's personal friend and lawyer suspected of conflict of interest.

Attorney David Shimron is facing allegations that he used his close relationship with Netanyahu to push Israel to purchase several submarines from another of his clients, German arms manufacturer Thyssenkrupp, while Netanyahu was also pushing for the purchase.

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Shimron is also accused of pushing Israel to award the company a contract for naval vessels to defend Israel's gas fields, and to allow the company to build a shipyard in Israel, the Times of Israel reported.

Both Netanyahu and Shimron have denied speaking about the latter’s business relationship in the submarine deal, noting that their actions regarding the contract were independent of each other.

'No fault' 

However, Israel's Channel 10 reported on Wednesday that Shimron allegedly did use his relationship with Netanyahu to lobby for Thyssenkrupp.

According to the report, Shimron called Israeli Defense Ministry legal adviser, attorney Ahaz Ben-Ari, to inquire why a previous international tender for naval boats needed to protect Israel's gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea was issued in 2014. He reportedly said he wanted the contract to instead be given to Thyssenkrupp – a request which was apparently also made by Netanyahu.

Ben-Ari recalled that discussion in a 2014 email to Defense Ministry Director-General Dan Harel, which reportedly said: “Attorney David Shimron, who represents the German firm, called me and wanted to know if we are halting the bidding process in order to negotiate with his client, as was requested of us by the prime minister.”

However, Shimron responded to the report by denying he made the request on behalf of Netanyahu, telling Channel 10 that he “didn't tell attorney Ben-Ari a thing about the prime minister. I also didn't know a thing about a request from the prime minister, which I have only learned about now from the media, and how Ben-Ari linked the matters...

“...I also didn’t have the vaguest notion about involvement by the prime minister in the shipyard issue...” he added.

Shimron said he welcomed the attorney-general's decision to launch the probe, saying he is “confident” that it will soon become clear there was “no fault” in his actions and that “all was done according to the rules and arrangements regarding conflict of interests.”

The Israel Bar Association has also filed a complaint against Shimron, telling Haaretz that it is awaiting the attorney’s response, which must be submitted within 30 days. Once that has been received, the association will decide whether it will conduct disciplinary procedures against him.

'Lying & whitewashing' 

Meanwhile, Netanyahu – who is expected to be questioned in the probe – has maintained that he was unaware that Shimron was advising Thyssenkrupp, and defended the acquisition at Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting.

“The principle that guides me is clear: Israel will be able to defend itself by itself against any enemy, in any field,” he said, referring to the purchase of the submarines.

“The security of Israel requires the acquisition of submarines and the renewal of the submarine fleet. These are strategic weapons systems that ensure the future and, I tell you, the very existence of the State of Israel for decades to come,” he added.

Although Netanyahu is reportedly not the focus of the probe, the inquiry is expected to examine his preference for the purchase of the same vessels urged by Shimron.

Many within the Knesset are supporting the probe, with Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit saying, “After the prime minister's lying, avoiding, and whitewashing in disregarding the facts, the right decision was made on the investigation,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

That sentiment was echoed by Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich.

“The evidence grew to be undeniable that the prime minister’s entourage was aware of state secrets, and used them to pocket gross amounts of money at the expense of the citizens of Israel. The only question is whether the prime minister was blind to what was happening under his nose, or whether he took part in the corruption,” she said.

The decision to launch the probe represented a U-turn for Mandelblit's office, which said on Sunday that it would not be opening an investigation.

The turn-around came after new material was discovered amid an investigation into former deputy National Security Council head Avriel Bar Yosef, who is accused of taking bribes. The new information was immediately passed onto Mandelblit, Haaretz reported.

“Following new information that has been received today from the police, and in view of other developments in the matter, the attorney- general has ordered an investigation to be carried out by police concerning various aspects of the affair,” a statement from the Justice Ministry read.

However, Mandelblit has stressed that the probe is not a full-blown criminal investigation and should not be viewed as such, noting that such probes can lead to police concluding that no further action is justified.