Opinion

Generous With State Secrets

If revealing classified information endangers security, as the Israeli defense establishment claims, then Netanyahu is a walking – or rather, a convoy-traveling – security risk

Amir Oren
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, 2009.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, 2009.Credit: Daniel Bar On / Gini
Amir Oren

The first law of secrets is that you can’t reveal them. The second law is that the first law applies to everyone, including prime ministers. Yes, it also includes those named Ehud. The third law is that the first law doesn’t apply to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is not so as to feel sorry for Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who fell from the heights of the premiership to the depths of Ma’asiyahu Prison and is now suspected, with sales-promoting tumult, of smuggling classified material to his publisher. Olmert, as prime minister, instructed the Shin Bet security service to investigate suspicions of leaks, which were supposedly published in these pages. Olmert himself, like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, his partner in initiating that vindictive and failed investigation, should have been at the top of the list of people questioned, which was purposely composed only of the most junior ones. The lead investigator, who hid, as is customary in the Shin Bet, behind the code name “Claude,” quickly became enmeshed in the affair. Both he and the prime minister tasted a bit of the stew they had cooked for others.

But both Olmert and Ehud Barak can claim discrimination in contrast to Netanyahu. Barak did so recently in his response to a petition to the High Court of Justice against the decision by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and his successor, Avichai Mendelblit, not to indict Barak for passing secret material to ghost writers. What do they want from him, Barak asked bitterly. The leak of the presentation about the conquest of Gaza by Netanyahu’s inner circle at the height of Operation Protective Edge was much worse, and that was shelved. Justices Esther Hayut, Daphne Barak-Erez and Menachem Mazuz were not thrilled with the attorney generals’ position, but as usual, they refrained from intervening in their decision.

If revealing classified information endangers security, as the Shin Bet, the Defense Ministry department in charge of security and the military censor frequently claim, then Netanyahu is a walking – or rather, a convoy-traveling – security risk.

In 1995, when he was leader of the opposition, Netanyahu revealed in a Knesset speech the military secret of the so-called “Stauber document,” which outlined Israel's positions in sensitive talks with Syria. Then-Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair let it go. When Netanyahu made use of election adviser Arthur Finkelstein to wipe out the stains of his failed bid to have Mossad operatives poison Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan in 1997, then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein and his deputy, Noam Sohlberg, who were both to become Supreme Court justices, said they believed Netanyahu’s denials that Finkelstein was made privy to state secrets.

Netanyahu learned a lesson: They’ll always forgive him. On July 27, 1999, while his plane was still in the air, the head of the security branch of the Prime Minister’s Office, Amiram Elul, urgently addressed the head of information security in the Shin Bet, Oded Raz, about another matter: suspicions that Netanyahu had flown to New York with some sensitive material he had received from the head of the Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon.

It was a few weeks after Netanyahu lost to Barak. He kept a document classified “preferred” – more secret than top secret – “in his desk drawer, accessible to his American aide George Birnbaum," wrote Elul. "I notified Netanyahu that the document was not being kept according to written security rules. Netanyahu told me this was by mistake." The state archivist also mentioned the treatment of classified documents to Netanyahu. Netanyahu claimed it was all in innocence.

When secrets are supposedly passed from Ma’asiyahu to Rishon Letzion or from Tel Aviv to New York, what is important is the identity of the person passing them, and not the essence of what is inside. It turns out that the Shin Bet is more permissive when it comes to Netanyahu than the Israel Prisons Service is with Olmert, and that successive attorney generals will excuse anything Netanyahu does. It's a shame on Netanyahu and a disgrace for the attorney generals.

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