JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister announced on Sunday the establishment of a governmental commission of inquiry into the multibillion-dollar purchase of submarines and missile boats under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an episode often described as the worst corruption scandal in Israel’s history.
The defense minister, Benny Gantz, took the step largely to pressure Mr. Netanyahu, a political rival, into fulfilling their coalition agreements, but it could also further destabilize their already shaky unity government.
Mr. Netanyahu was not named as a suspect in an earlier police investigation of the purchase of submarines and missile boats from Germany that caught up several of his close associates. The planned commission of inquiry lacks legal authority. It may summon any witness to testify but cannot compel anybody to appear before it.
Headed by a respected retired judge, Amnon Strashnov, and including a former naval commander and former government procurement officials, the panel may carry public and moral weight. The inquiry is expected to last about four months, and the commission’s findings will be published.
“The Defense Ministry probe can shed light on part of the processes that led to the procurement of the submarines and vessels,” Mr. Gantz, a former army chief, said on Sunday.
A full state commission of inquiry, which would have more teeth, can be established only with government approval, something that would clearly not be granted by Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party.
Mr. Gantz’s more limited measure goes some way toward satisfying his disgruntled voters and critics within his centrist Blue and White party, which has been plummeting in the polls since Mr. Gantz went back on an election pledge and joined forces with Mr. Netanyahu.
The Likud party strongly criticized Mr. Gantz’s decision on Sunday, while dismissing it as an empty political maneuver intended to revitalize his flagging support.
“Gantz has not succeeded in emerging from the depths of the polls,” the party said in a statement, “so he is recycling the submarines to garner votes while his party is busy with internal quarrels.”
Mr. Gantz entered the unity government in May, declaring that the priority was to deal with the coronavirus crisis and avoid a fourth election after three national ballots within a year ended inconclusively, with neither side able to muster a majority to form a government.
But the Netanyahu-led government has been largely paralyzed, with the partners fighting over deadlines for a budget and senior appointments. Likud politicians have made it clear that they have no intention of honoring the coalition agreement that was supposed to see Mr. Gantz take over for his turn as prime minister in a year’s time.
Mr. Netanyahu is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three other cases involving allegations of illicit gifts and the trading of lucrative official favors in return for favorable media coverage. He has denied wrongdoing.
But the submarine affair has also continued to cast a pall over his future. Model submarines have appeared widely as props in the anti-Netanyahu marches and protests that occur weekly outside the prime minister’s official residence. Critics have long argued that if Mr. Netanyahu did not know what was going on, he should have.