Benjamin Netanyahu, AP, July 25, 2010.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, July 25, 2010. Photo by AP
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Following pressure from intelligence agencies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has extended the period during which material contained in government archives may remain classified by 20 years.

The new regulations, approved two weeks ago, mean archived material scheduled to become available to scholars and the public after 50 years will now remain in the vaults until 70 years have passed since they were placed there.

The documents in question stem from the first two decades of Israel's existence, and relate to such seminal events as the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the failed intelligence operation two years prior known as the Lavon Affair and the 1967 Six-Day War. Netanyahu's new directive means the first of them will be unveiled to the public only in 2018.

The move comes after the Shin Bet and other security services exerted considerable pressure on Netanyahu to prevent the archives' opening. State Archivist Yehoshua Freundlich told Haaretz that some of the material was selected to remain classified because "it has implications over [Israel's] adherence to international law."

Netanyahu signed the measure, drafted after months of internal wrangling by Israel State Archive authorities, on July 11, after it had been examined by his bureau's legal adviser.

The revised regulations will apply to a series of government bodies that for years violated the 1955 Archives Law by keeping individual archives of their own. These include the Shin Bet, Mossad espionage agency, Atomic Energy Commission, Institute for Biological Research and other organizations directly under the prime minister's authority.

The revisions could also produce a situation in which material from the first decade of Israel's existence, including classified intelligence reports, in the IDF archives that had already been made public would again be hidden away.

The new directives come after two journalists, Ronen Bergman of Yedioth Ahronoth and Yossi Melman of Haaretz, waged a three-year battle in the High Court of Justice over petitions they had filed to have the government bodies' individual archives opened. The decision to keep the material under wraps will now likely lead the High Court to reject the journalists' petitions.

Before the measure's final formulation is presented for Netanyahu's approval, archive authorities met in recent weeks to discuss the initiative. In a protocol of the meeting obtained by Haaretz, Freundlich said the new measures are driven by pressure on the part of the security services and concerns that the High Court would ultimately rule in favor of the journalists' petitions. "I won't hide from you the fact that a major reason for this entire affair is public pressure to open the archives of the Mossad, Shin Bet, Atomic Energy Commission, Institute for Biological Research and perhaps several other institutions," Freundlich said.

"After speaking with certain people I've become convinced that in the current situation these materials are not fit for public viewing," he said. "Don't ask me what will happen in 70 years. In eight years we'll all meet here, I hope, and deal with this matter again. I've asked these institutions that when these documents hit the 70-year mark, that articles and books be written about them. I asked them to take the first steps in exposing them to the general public. I must say I have yet to see indications of that going into effect."

The fight to open the archives was led by the Movement for Freedom of Information and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The prime minister's bureau said that the revision process has been spread over three years and included consultations with historians, human-rights activists, and authorities from the Israel State Archives and security organizations.

Netanyahu's bureau added that the new measures are available to the public online. "The new regulations shorten the period after which non-security-related material may be viewed, from 30 to 15 years, while lengthening the confidentiality period of certain defense-related documents to 70 years in cases in which Israel's security conditions require it," the statement said.