Foreign Ministry Director Bars All Diplomats From Contacting Israeli Journalists

Exceptional directive, issued in wake of Haaretz report that Arab states won't seek vote on Israeli nuclear arms at UN watchdog gathering, doesn't include the foreign press.

AFP

The Foreign Ministry's director general on Thursday banned all Israeli diplomats in Israel and abroad from holding contacts with Israeli journalists. The exceptional directive was issued by Dore Gold in the wake of a Haaretz report that Arab states would not seek a vote regarding Israel's nuclear arms at next month's International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Foreign Ministry official said on Thursday that Gold became furious when he saw the report and convened an urgent meeting in his office. He raged over what he called a "leak," even though most of the information in the report was unclassified.

At the end of the meeting Gold ordered the release of new rules forbidding any contact with the Israeli media, but did not extend the ban to the foreign press. Following the meeting, Gilad Cohen, the deputy director general, and Emanuel Nahshon, the ministry spokesman, sent a telegram to all Foreign Ministry workers in Israel and abroad containing the new rules.

"In light of recent events, in which unauthorized contact with Israeli journalists was made, we seek to repeat and refine the rule," the letter stated in a copy obtained by Haaretz. "No contact is to be made by ministry workers in Israel or abroad with any representatives of the Israeli press. In any request by an Israeli journalist you must turn to the ministry spokesman and receive instructions."

Senior Foreign Ministry officials remarked that the new directive reflects a trend led by Gold and some of his assistants, mainly chief of staff Shimon Shapira, to become more aggressive with journalists, especially critical ones. Shapira, a political appointment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, serves effectively as his personal representative in the ministry. Senior ministry officials stressed that in recent months Shapira's behavior has earned him the nickname "Commissar."

Intimidation tactics

Gold and Shapira have taken steps to limit press accessibility to the ministry to create a funnel effect that will make diplomats fear answering journalist questions or to keep on touch with the press. The most drastic step so far has been Gold's directive to open an internal investigation following a Haaretz report on June 19 about the ministry's failure to prevent the decision by 28 EU foreign ministers to adopt the French peace initiative.

Gold was furious about that report, and during a management meeting that morning raised his voice several times. Senior officials who were present at that meeting remarked that Gold hinted that Alon Ushpiz, the deputy director general for diplomacy, was behind the report. "Anyone who thinks that he can become director general through leaks to the press is making a bitter mistake," Gold reportedly said.

Senior ministry officials said that Gold's veiled accusation of Ushpiz was evidence of tension between the two. Gold has denied any such tension, commenting that he never suspected Ushpiz leaked any information to anybody. "I have full and absolute faith in Alon Ushpiz, who is among the most senior and best of Israeli diplomats," said Gold.

Encouraged by Shapira, Gold tasked the Foreign Ministry's general inspector, Orna Sagiv, with calling in for questioning dozens of diplomats who had been exposed to telegrams and email messages that dealt with the EU meeting. A senior ministry official remarked that at least 20 diplomats, some of them as senior as deputy director general, were questioned by Sagiv regarding the Haaretz report. The investigation ended inconclusively.

"It was clear that the person behind the link would not be found," said a senior ministry official. "The whole goal was to intimidate us from contacting journalists in future."

Senior ministry officials say that in contrast to the order that he gave to Israeli diplomats, Gold himself actually likes the press, especially the part of the Israeli press identified with the right or that rarely criticizes Israeli policy. Gold himself gave information about his secret trip to Chad last month exclusively to Israel Hayom.

"Hysteria is running wild at the Foreign Ministry," MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), who heads the caucus for the strengthening of Israel's diplomatic relations, said. "What has been left there, after they stripped [the ministry] of its power and responsibilities? To fight in the media. This is ridicules and sad."