Ehud Olmert was not the first prime minister to take classified documents with him when he left office. The police raid on offices of Yedioth Books on Thursday in search of classified materials that Olmert allegedly removed from his office to use in writing his memoirs was a reminder that two of his predecessors illegally held classified documents. Papers that were supposed to be in the Israel State Archives were found in their homes or those of family members.
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The most notable example was Ariel Sharon, who maintained a large private archive in his Sycamore Farm home. For decades he refused to hand the documents over to the army and the state archives, as required by law.
Sharon’s private archive was an open secret before a segment on the investigative television program “Uvda” (“Fact”) made it general knowledge in 2011. His son Gilad gave their cameras access to his father’s archive, and it became evident that Sharon had thousands of military and state documents dating from the 1973 Yom Kippur War and beyond.
This wasn’t news to the Defense Ministry. During the Agranat Commission hearings after that war, Sharon had testified he had crates of classified military documents at home, and was castigated for it. He nevertheless maintained and even expanded his illegal archive.
Not until three years ago, after Sharon’s death, did senior Defense Ministry officials discuss ordering a police raid on Sycamore Farm to confiscate the documents. But Sharon’s sons were spared the unpleasantness when they made an agreement with the state archives to return the documents in mid-2015, more than a year after Sharon died and eight years after he fell into a coma.
Since then, Gilad and Omri Sharon have returned hundreds of crates with classified material to the state, and continue to do so.
Israel’s third prime minister, Levi Eshkol, was involved in a similar affair. After his death in 1969, his widow, Miriam Eshkol, retained documents from his archive as part of Yad Levi Eshkol, a nonprofit association that was established to commemorate his life and works. Over the years, the state archives clashed a number of times with Miriam Eshkol over the documents.
Prof. Tuvia Friling, Israel’s state archivist from 2001 to 2004, told Haaretz half a year ago, after Miriam Eshkol’s death, that he had a number of meetings with her about it. He said the problem was twofold. Not only was she illegally holding classified documents, but she was also preventing researchers’ access to documents that should be open to the public.
“I made it clear to her that like others in the administration, her husband apparently also took home various documents he had obtained as part of his various duties, and that these were being held illegally,” Friling said.
“There was a possibility that papers that were still classified by law, like protocols from cabinet sessions and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meetings, were open to the public as part of Eshkol’s collection — which was a breach of proper conduct.”
A story circulating in the state archives has it that “defense officials” broke into Eshkol’s archive after she refused to hand over the classified documents. Officials at Yad Levi Eshkol say this is an urban legend and claim the material was under the authorities’ supervision and inspection.
Perhaps the story stems from the embarrassment caused the state by nuclear historian Avner Cohen, who in the early 1990s found classified documents in the Eshkol private archive that shouldn’t have been there, and published them.
“To study the documents I was required to go to Miriam’s house and pass an audition in the kitchen,” he told Haaretz.
When she let him in he was astounded by the “quality of the treasures there,” Cohen said, including “the nation’s nuclear secrets.”
Shortly afterward he was suddenly asked to leave the premises, but he took with him papers from 1963 documenting a discussion in Eshkol’s cabinet about the nuclear reactor in Dimona.