JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Cabinet approved Sunday the launch of a state investigation into an affair involving the purchase of submarines and other warships from Germany, a case that has embroiled close confidants of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The graft scandal surrounds a possible conflict of interest and bribery involving a $2 billion purchase of naval vessels from Germany's Thyssenkrupp that implicated some of Netanyahu's closest associates. The former prime minister was questioned, but not named as a suspect, in the scandal, referred to in Hebrew as “ Case 3000.”
The Cabinet authorized establishing a state investigation into the case by vote. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett abstained.
"The processes for defense acquisitions in this government are clean of outside considerations," Bennett said at the start of Sunday's Cabinet meeting. “Our sole consideration is the security of Israel.”
The state commission of inquiry has sweeping authority to investigate and summon witnesses, and its recommendations typically guide government policy.
Nitzan Horowitz, Israel's health minister and a Cabinet member, said the government investigation “is a critical step in the fight against corruption and is essential for the defense establishment.”
The approval of a state investigation came more than a year after Defense Minister Benny Gantz authorized a probe into Netanyahu's role in the affair.
Gantz said on Twitter after the vote that launching the investigation is of “the highest security need, and a clear message that you cannot play with Israel's defense.”
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak on Sunday called the matter “the most serious corruption scandal in Israel’s history.” Anti-Netanyahu protesters who demonstrated outside his Jerusalem residence until his ouster from office last year had called for an investigation into his role in the submarine scandal.
Netanyahu is currently on trial in three other corruption cases and has denied any wrongdoing. He served as prime minister from 2009 until last year, when he was unseated by a coalition of his opponents following a fourth parliamentary election in two years. He now serves as leader of the opposition in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
Last week Israel signed an agreement with Germany to purchase three top-of-line submarines from Thyssenkrupp for three billion euros ($3.4 billion) to replace older ships retiring at the end of the decade. The Defense Ministry said they were not part of the state investigation.
Netanyahu’s Likud party responded to the announcement, saying the investigation should look into “how all those who for years opposed buying three more submarines suddenly approved the purchase," and dismissed the allegations of wrongdoing as “idle political claims.”