- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
On Monday, after months of clamor from the opposition and amid an ongoing “inquiry,” the Israeli police questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over allegations of corruption, marking the beginning of a criminal investigation.
Details of the probe have not been made public, but the general understanding is that there are two separate issues at stake. First, the prime minister allegedly received favors from Israeli (and, perhaps more problematically, foreign) businessmen. Second, there was a seemingly unsavory defense deal in 2015 with German company ThyssenKrupp over submarines and warships.
The police fraud investigation and prosecution unit spoke to Netanyahu with the authorization of the Israeli attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.
Erel Margalit, who is gunning for leadership of Israel’s opposition center-left Zionist Union Party, told Foreign Policy that these potential scandals are much more important than other alleged peccadillos committed by Netanyahu over the years, from overpaying for flights to spending $2,700 a year on ice cream (his favorite flavor is pistachio).
“It needs to be clear that you have the largest things at stake,” he said.
The deal with ThyssenKrupp, Margalit said, should not have been made under pressure from the prime minister’s office. But, though there was a tender in 2014 for a contract for which several companies (including the United States) made offers, the legal counsel for the ministry of defense reportedly got a call from “Bibi’s lawyer” saying that Israel was going with the Germans. Margalit says that Netanyahu, along with his personal attorney/cousin, pushed through a deal with the shipyard for the construction of naval vessels.
Though the contract — variously said to be worth half a billion dollars or more than a billion — was with German company ThyssenKrupp, it was subcontracted to a shipyard then known as Abu Dhabi MAR and now renamed German Naval Yards Kiel. The major owner of the shipyard is the family of Lebanon’s former defense minister, Samir Moqbel. Margalit says he has worked with both Iran and Hezbollah. Netanyahu’s lawyer, according to Israel’s Channel 10, also works for the Israeli agent of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems.
Netanyahu, speaking to members of his right-wing Likud party in parliament on Monday, said, “We hear the celebratory spirit and winds blowing through the television studios and in the corridors of the opposition. Hold off the celebrations; don’t rush.” His office also issued a statement, which read, “Try to replace the prime minister at the ballot boxes, as is accepted in democracies.”
Margalit said he hopes any investigation of the prime minister focuses on “the big things.”
Israel has a tradition of taking down prime ministers in corruption probes. Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, was undone by corruption accusations in 2008 (he remained as caretaker prime minister until Netanyahu returned to power in 2009).
Even if he is suspected of criminal activity, Netanyahu does not necessarily need to step down. He would only have to resign if convicted, and with the conviction upheld by Israel’s High Court. Margalit worries that Netanyahu may be trying to shield himself. He is apparently trying to pass a law that would come into effect in the next parliament that the sitting prime minister cannot be interrogated.
But if Bibi calls elections, during which by law he could not be interrogated, he’d be safe and clear in the next parliament after the elections conclude — provided he wins.
Photo credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images