Embarrassing media leak forces Lieberman to declassify Knesset defense committee discussions
Furious chairman makes decision after highly sensitive comments made by Shin Bet security service chief about PA President Mahmoud Abbas were leaked to the press.
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avigdor Lieberman has decided to declassify all of the committee’s discussions. The move comes after a briefing Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen made to the body was leaked to the media this week.
In a letter distributed to committee members on Thursday, Lieberman wrote: “In light of the distorted version that was passed on to the media, it is clear to me who is behind the leak, and I regret that he has harmed the committee’s work and the Knesset’s good name.”
The first unclassified discussion to be held by the committee will be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the committee, scheduled for Monday.
Yisrael Beiteinu head Lieberman was furious after a main headline in the Maariv newspaper on Wednesday quoted Cohen as saying that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas does not believe in a peace agreement with Israel. In an unusual step, the Shin Bet issued a statement the same day denying the remarks. The vast majority of committee members who were present also denied the remarks that were attributed to the Shin Bet chief.
“At the start of the discussion, Cohen said he was unwilling to enter political pitfalls and asked us not to attribute political significance to his analysis,” says one of the committee members. “The Shin Bet chief was very frank and very open," the member says, "as he knew this was a classified committee hearing. His comments were completely professional and did not reflect an opinion one way or the other. In my opinion, he was even too open with the members of the Knesset.”
Another MK said: “Contrary to reports, Cohen may have been pessimistic regarding [Mahmoud Abbas’] ability to resume negotiations with Israel, but he said that this was because Israel is not making enough concessions to the Palestinian Authority. His remarks could be interpreted as saying that the problem lies with the current Israeli policy.”
Either way, Lieberman reacted strongly to the leak, and decided to reinstate the previous Knesset's procedure – that all committee meetings be unclassified, and classified material will only be presented at the subcommittee meetings.
“This leak is especially saddening in light of the fact that when I entered my role as committee chairman, I heard complaints from some committee members that the meetings had become a way for security officials to ‘give press briefings,’ and that significant information regarding the work of the security services was not given to the members.”
Lieberman explained that, in the past, he had decided to split up the committee discussions in an attempt to make them more significant. He said he had decided to incorporate “open meetings” – which would discuss unclassified information that would also be released to the press – and “closed meetings,” which would mostly be held with security service heads. These closed meetings would be similar to subcommittee discussions, and would include classified information.
Lieberman added that he “believed that, on the one hand, this format would safeguard the public’s right to know; and, on the other, would enable more in-depth meetings to be held that would strengthen the committee's work.” After the leak to Maariv, he decided that “from this moment, all committee meetings will be open and uncensored, and of course classified information will not be disclosed.”