U.S. President Donald Trump had a custom that expressed well his eccentric personality: He often tore documents he lost interest in to shreds. Former government officials revealed in 2018 how they would gather the torn papers and tape them back together. According to an article in Politico, the documents – which the president ripped up with his own hands, sometimes in two and sometimes into tiny “confetti-size” pieces – included handwritten memoranda; invitations to events; inquiries from citizens and legislators; and even a letter from Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader at the time.
Trump, to the delight of Clio, the muse of history, had an entire staff who salvaged the fragments. In Israel, it is not at all clear so far which documents Benjamin Netanyahu ordered to be shredded. The former prime minister denies last week’s report in Haaretz, which claimed that official documents were shredded on his last day in office. Ruti Abramovich, from the Israel State Archives, wrote this week after a visit to the Prime Minister’s Office that she was “not convinced” that classified material had been shredded, but she added that until the investigation is completed, “there is no certainty.” This is careful language. Indeed, how can one know about something like this?
As far as we know, this is the first time that any documents have been destroyed on the orders of a departing prime minister in Israel. But this is apparently not a first for Netanyahu. After the end of his first term, in 1999, journalist Mordechai Gilat reported in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth that Netanyahu removed classified documents and traveled abroad with them. This, it was reported, led to the opening of a Shin Bet security service investigation, which involved inspecting Netanyahu’s baggage in New York. However, the investigation was called off for unknown reasons.
Document shredding is a common practice in both oppressive and democratic regimes. A 1998 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa stated that one of the “tragedies is that the previous government deliberately and systematically destroyed a large group of state documents.” The purpose of the destruction is clear: to prevent the new government from finding out about the deeds of the previous one.
Until now, the “ex-es” or “formerlys” in Israel have behaved differently: no shredding, just stealing; no destruction, just concealment – i.e., removing documents without authority and permission. This practice has a parallel in the actions of the Defense Ministry security authority, known by its Hebrew acronym Malmab, which for years has diligently gathered and archived stacks of documents, without the legal authority to do so. From the public’s perspective, the results are the same: The activities of the state are shrouded in secrecy.
For decades, senior government and Israel Defense Forces brass took documents with them after they retired, and the state did nothing to prevent this. Even in the known cases, not much was done to retrieve the material.
In September 2016, a few days after former President Shimon Peres’ death, a report about his life was broadcast on German television. The news team was given the opportunity to tour his archive at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa. The camera briefly scanned the cabinets. One of them was labelled: “The reactor in Dimona” in bold letters.
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Any request to review the documents stored in the Peres archive will be denied. Indeed, the writer of these lines has also been denied more than once. Not only is it a private archive, which is not subject to the stipulations of the Archives Law – unlike, for example, the state archives or the IDF archives – but any access depends on the whims of its owner or director. But an even more important question is how documents dealing with the Dimona reactor came to be held in a private facility.
It’s worth noting that Peres’ conduct was no different than others’. In Ariel Sharon’s case, for example, rumors have been circulating for years about a private document archive located on the ranch owned by the former prime minister’s family. Sharon even admitted this in his testimony to the Agranat Commission, when he confirmed that he stored “a number of padlocked iron crates.” The archive was shown on the “Uvda” investigative TV program in late 2011, when the show’s staff gained permission to roam the ranch.
Son Gilad Sharon gloatingly displayed various notes and documents from his father’s estate to the cameras. It was difficult not to be impressed by the long and orderly rows of binders containing information accumulated over the years during which Sharon held senior government and army positions. But how did the state let such material fall into private hands and stay there – material that only in recent years has begun to be returned to it after lengthy negotiations between the family and the state archives?
It hasn’t only been prime ministers who took possession of documents, but also ministers and other officials. The estate of Abba Eban, Israel’s third foreign minister, is currently stored at the Truman Research Institute in Jerusalem after being purchased for a respectable sum. A cursory examination of the materials deposited there is sufficient to establish that they are quite valuable in historical terms. Further proof for this comes from Malmab’s illegal demand to retrieve some of the archival material.
Anyone who visits private archives belonging to so-called formerlys scattered around the country – that is, archives that are not subject to the Archives Act, be it well-run institutions like the Peres Center, a hangar at Sharon’s ranch or crates stored in some warehouse – will encounter extensive, illegally removed documentation. Years of neglect and willful blindness on the part of the state have created chaos, and without the state archives leading the efforts to retrieve the material all the formerlys have at their disposal, Malmab stepped in, lacking proper jurisdiction, and reclassified the materials.
In the case of Miriam Eshkol, wife of former Prime Minister Levy Eshkol, it was also Malmab that intervened and retrieved the documents she refused to hand over to the state archives.
Reason dictates that the material shredded in Netanyahu’s office, whether official or private, is valuable. There is no point, after all, in shredding worthless documents. From the public’s point of view, however, there is a difference between Netanyahu and his predecessors: Someday, hopefully, Israelis will be given access to the materials stored in the Peres Center archives. That is what happened to Eban’s estate, deposited in the Truman Institute (and not in the state archives) and this is what it will hopefully happen to the material on Sharon’s ranch. But shredded documents can never be recovered. In practice, Netanyahu thus took the Israeli policy of concealment even one step further.
Adam Raz is a researcher at the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research.