A Glimpse Into the Obscure World of Israel's State Archives

Cabinet ministers thought that the minutes of the meeting about construction in the territories would be publicized within a few years. But it took more than five decades for the file to be opened, and then almost by chance

FILE PHOTO: Israeli government meeting, Jerusalem, 1966.
Moshe Fridan / GPO

Quietly and without fanfare, the Israel State Archives posted on its website the minutes of the cabinet meeting of October 1, 1967. The document was uploaded unexpectedly a few weeks ago, after a decision had been made earlier to keep it secret from the public long after it should have been declassified.

The text of some 80 pages sheds light on the decision-making process at the inception of the settlement project. Its closure to public scrutiny and subsequent revelation provide a glimpse into the obscure world of who decides what we see – or don’t see.

In the October 1967 meeting, held four months after Israel had taken control of the West Bank in the Six-Day War, it was decided that the establishment of settlements across the Green Line (the pre-war cease-fire line that constituted Israel’s effective border) would require government approval. This was also the only agreement the ministers arrived at in the meeting, and it was primarily aimed to allow them to press on with the creation of settlements without having establishing a thought-out policy. Among the views they voiced were the following:

Health Minister Yisrael Barzilai: “I have learned that in a certain institution, whether in the Agricultural Center or the Jewish Agency, [there is] a long list of new settlements in the Administered Territories and that this [information] has also been published. Here, it was agreed that all such matters would be preceded by a discussion and a government decision. Is what we agreed between us actually being done? Yet it was said here that a settlement has already been put up at Kuneitra [in the Golan Heights]. Where was that decided?”

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol: “You are asking about the West Bank. I also read about that… I am also in favor of certain things; you know, I was also angry about those reports even before construction begins [of the settlements]. Who needs it?”

Barzilai: “Can they put up 30 settlements in the West Bank?”

Eshkol: “Ask them at the Agricultural Center. They can decide whatever they want. Jews walk around and talk. I have nothing against you, because I also took the reports hard. But it’s possible, if you ask me, I am ready – even though every day I think one way in the morning and differently in the afternoon – to create settlements today in places that to you look forbidden... and maybe you too will change your mind… As far as the [Golan] Heights go: We said that we are going up there to plow and sow. That is not done by a plane from the sky, from the moon. There are also people involved. I myself also haven’t yet seen [the area]. They haven’t built houses there yet.”

Barzilai: “We haven’t decided on a settlement site there. I am not saying I am against it, but we didn’t decide.”

Eshkol: “I don’t mind settling every corner of the land that can be settled during this period. It’s also possible to postpone things for a week and it’s possible to do it with a softer cover that’s acceptable. If you’re talking about a company from the Nahal [brigade], that’s acceptable to them. If it’s called a ‘settlement,’ it’s harder to take.”

In my capacity as state archivist, a position I held until last year, I endeavored to make this document, and millions of others, available for public perusal on the website of the State Archives. A few weeks ago, I read an account of the meeting discussed here in a memoir published by former Jewish Agency official Yehiel Admoni. However, to my surprise, when I tried to view the whole document, I found that it was sealed. At my request, the staff of the State Archives unsealed the document for perusal. It’s true that I bore “ministerial responsibility” for the sealing, but I didn’t deal with individual files. I asked about the considerations that led to the document being sealed then and to the decision to allow it to be accessed now, but didn’t get an answer. I can only conjecture.

It doesn’t stand to reason that the minutes were blocked because of their content. Other transcripts from the same period have long been available on the website. Nevertheless, something in the minutes prompted those in charge to behave differently in this case. The explanation, I believe, is to be found not in the discussion about the settlements, but in what took place in the first hour of the meeting. It was devoted to a survey by the government’s chief statistician, Prof. Roberto Bachi, who presented the findings of a census that was conducted in the territories immediately after the Six-Day War. And Bachi had a problem.

The results of the census showed that the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was far lower than what could have been expected on the basis of previous censuses conducted by Egypt (in the Gaza Strip) and Jordan (in the West Bank). Bachi was apprehensive that the Israeli findings would be considered unreliable, unless they were presented within the context of a professional census and by experts. Leaks by politicians would only be a disservice.

Eshkol agreed with him and adopted an interesting stratagem to ensure that none of the ministers would leak the data until after they were presented professionally. He designated that part of the cabinet session a security cabinet meeting. Ministers tended not to leak information from security cabinet meetings, because of the serious punishment accruing to that. Bachi was thus able to inform the cabinet in advance about what he was yet to make public, and a week or two later he published the findings without any leaks having occurred in the interim. Accordingly, the need for special secrecy was obviated.

But no. The regulations stipulate that minutes of cabinet meetings are to remain sealed for 30 years, and minutes of ministerial security committees for 50 years. I imagine that in this case the archive officials saw Eshkol’s remarks, and without further ado decided that the whole meeting fell under the rubric of a ministerial security committee and that the entire document would therefore remain sealed until 2017. When 2017 arrived, no one went back to check the file before its declassification. It was only following my recent request to see the material that it was made available, because there really is nothing to hide in it.

Is this the result that Eshkol, Bachi or anyone else wished for? Obviously not. But that’s the way the system works. What sets this particular meeting apart is that the participants offered their opinion, at the time and quite explicitly, about when the minutes should be unsealed:

Education and Culture Minister Zalman Aran: “Generally I don’t have preferred directions when I talk about such things, when it comes to the ‘minister of history.’ That is not my job. I want to relate to today. I don’t know what my status will be vis-a-vis the minister of history. I know that there was general agreement to [establish] military outposts wherever the defense minister recommends. That’s as a principle. Nothing has been decided about the rest yet. With the exception of two-three places, with which I definitely agree. That is the case with Gush Etzion, which is not [only] a military outpost but also a civilian outpost.

“As for the Golan Heights, I have no doubt that we must not descend from the Golan Heights, because we won’t be able to live without it. But I am against our deciding arbitrarily on settlement outposts in other places. That must first be discussed. I don’t accept the idea of turning this into some ‘retail’ thing: Today we’ll decide on one thing, tomorrow we’ll decide on something else, as Minister [Yigal] Alon said. I want there to be a principled approach. We should devote a day of discussion to this, in order to avert misunderstandings.”

Eshkol: “Even so, I am certain that you spoke with an eye to history, even if you said it’s not important. Because otherwise there was no need to say it now. After all, we all said not to settle in dubious places without an additional discussion about it.”

Aran: “I don’t know if I spoke for history, but I spoke for the record.”

Eshkol: “In another 10 years, people will search in the minutes.”

Aran: “In two years there will be an election, and all the minutes will become public knowledge.”

But instead of two years, it took 52 years before the public was given access to the minutes.