At first glance, the minutes of a Knesset session on December 26, 1960 look like nothing out of the ordinary. But then the heading “Top secret” jumps out at the reader – meaning this particular document is anything but mundane.
“The session in question was the first and only Knesset session that took place behind closed doors, and whose minutes were classified as confidential,” explains historian Lior Brichta of the University of Haifa.
A few months ago, Brichta contacted the Knesset Archives and asked to see the document. The Knesset forwarded the request to the Israel State Archives, and received a green light to release it. “Without this request, the minutes would have remained sealed in the Knesset Archives,” said archive director Inda Novominsky.
The minutes reveal that there was nothing in the session that needed to be kept from the public, and begs the question of how many other documents are deemed classified for no good reason.
Dr. Nir Mann serves as historical adviser to the Knesset Museum, which is currently under construction. He says he wondered why the session was deemed so secret. The minutes reveal no new details about security matters or secret policies.
However, between the lines, another issue can be found that is very pertinent to our own times: strong accusations by the opposition –which at the time was right wing – against the conduct of the government under then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, which the opposition labeled “autocratic.”
“The opposition sensed Ben-Gurion’s outright contempt for it,” Mann relates.
The session took place behind closed doors mainly for technical reasons. Menachem Begin – head of the Herut Movement, which was later to merge into Likud – felt his questions to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about security matters were being ignored. To try to get around the panel, Begin attempted a parliamentary tactic – to have the committee meeting held in front of the entire Knesset. It was declared “a closed meeting to decide whether to hold the meeting behind closed doors,” according to the minutes.
The attempt actually failed, but its significance lay in the fact it was made at all – because by doing so, the opposition was given the opportunity to embarrass the coalition – “to flex its muscles,” as Mann puts it and make clear it was unhappy with Ben-Gurion’s bullying.
MK Aryeh Ben-Eliezer, Begin’s fellow party member and one of the founders of Herut, wasn’t sparing in his criticism of Ben-Gurion: “One’s man autocratic rule over the institutions of government, the security establishment and army – even if the individual is a civilian – is not civilian authority. It is autocracy,” Ben-Eliezer declared at the start of the session.
According to the law, the government must take responsibility for its actions and account for them in the Knesset, Ben-Eliezer told the legislature. But Ben-Gurion, the opposition MK said, was thumbing his nose at this. “Sometimes, the government presents no accounting at all for its actions, and sometimes it presents an accounting that does not conform to the truth and is opposed to the facts,” Ben-Eliezer alleged.
“The Knesset cannot, must not, waive its primary right to receive a report on the actions of the government, as the law requires,” he added.
There were a number of security-related issues on the agenda at the time, details of which the opposition demanded to hear about from the government.
First and foremost was the Lavon Affair, “a convoluted, complicated affair that rocked the political establishment” and marked the start of Ben-Gurion’s decline, according to Mann.
A day before the confidential Knesset session in December 1960, the government had decided to acquit Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon of accusations that he had given the order for what became known as “the rotten business” – a failed, covert terror operation carried out by Israel in Egypt in 1954.
Another affair at the time was the resignation of IDF Chief of Staff Haim Laskov. Arms deals between Israel and Germany also disturbed the opposition.
Referring to the government’s decision to conceal information from parliament, Ben-Eliezer said: “This system misleads Knesset members who are required to express their opinion by voting on known matters.” He said the government’s approach had helped create situations “like the Lavon Affair.”
The prime minister was unimpressed with the criticism. Speaking from the podium, Ben-Gurion said, “MK Ben-Eliezer should understand that he is neither the Knesset nor the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but only one of its members. They can accept his opinion or reject it, and he [shouldn’t] come telling tales.”
Ben-Gurion said that if decisions made by the government and Knesset on various issues “were unpleasant to the gentlemen, that is their business.” He added: “The government does not report on everything, all details, all everyday actions, to the Knesset. The Knesset can demand that a minister reports on anything the Knesset wants.”
Finally, Ben-Gurion fired a barb in Begin’s direction: “Mr. Begin knows secrets about arguments between the deputy defense minister, or not the deputy defense minister. I don’t know where he gets his information from from the Mem Bet security service?” Ben-Gurion was making a pun based on Begin’s initials in Hebrew and the initials of the Shin Bet security service.
After reading the minutes, historian Mann says that although the opposition lost on points – it was unable to get the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held in the presence of the entire Knesset – it did secure one victory: After that session, “neither Ben-Gurion nor anyone else dared cast aspersions on the honor of the [defense] committee and the status of Knesset committees.”
According to Mann, this singular event “left its mark as a clear democratic sign in the history of the Knesset.”
Mann’s colleague, Hadassah Greenberg-Yaakov, is heading the Knesset Museum project. She says that these hidden minutes will be part of the museum’s collection, which will be housed in the old Knesset building – Frumin House, in the center of Jerusalem. She adds that the museum will present the history of the Knesset during the first decades of the state, including some dilemmas that are still relevant to governments today.