It has been 10 months since Haaretz embarked on a battle to reveal the transcripts of cabinet meetings during the period of COVID-19, and seven months since the High Court of Justice sent us to exhaust the option of the Freedom of Information Law – even though it was clear that we wouldn’t get a thing that way. So clear, that on his way out of the courtroom, cabinet minister Tzahi Braverman gloated as he told us: “You won’t get a thing.” He didn’t even wait a full minute for the sake of appearances. After all, who cares about freedom of information.
Braverman kept his promise. The procedures were exhausted to the very last drop of refusal, and this week another petition will be submitted to the Supreme Court and the High Court of Justice. This will be the absolutely last opportunity to prevent the burial of the transcripts in the classified archive for 30 years.
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With rare cooperation, joining the appeal are the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel, attorney Shachar Ben Meir and additional media outlets.
Those were the early days of the pandemic, chaos was running wild even more than the virus, and the ministers assembled almost every night to approve additional draconian regulations. People, places of business and sectors were sentenced to life or death in the closed forum. From one moment to the next, without explanations. Who would be confined to his home, and who would go out; who would make a living, and who would be unemployed; who would be abandoned to be infected “al kiddush hashem” (to sanctify God’s name), and who would be saved. And based on what? Quite a few political considerations, sometimes even personal ones, combined with the overriding professional criteria: Who shouted the loudest at the meeting.
In this era of overabundance, it’s easy to confuse the surplus of information with knowledge. We think that we know what happens in the cabinet meetings, because we hear the quotes from the ministers. This one quarreled with that one, something funny happened, and in the end it always ends with the prime minister banging hard on the table. Presumably leaking is forbidden, but somehow we still hear who said what. That’s also presumably. We receive this specific piece of information because there’s someone who wants us to.
Let’s just say that these aren’t Pulitzer Prize-winning scoops. It’s a skillful and well oiled political leaking mechanism, which is almost always focused on petty matters rather than the whole picture. Reporters receive these crumbs, with their silent acquiescence, so that the information will suffice for them.
Anyone who wants to do an in-depth analysis of all the events of the period and the background materials, based on reliable information – an official transcript – cannot do so. According to cabinet regulations, the ministers’ discussion are always confidential, not only during the pandemic. This is despite the fact that the law itself limits the confidentiality to specific areas, above all, foreign affairs and security.
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But a pandemic is a civil issue. The virus doesn’t eavesdrop. Not only that, the cabinet minister is even permitted to approve a perusal of the transcripts in special circumstances. Let’s say a pandemic that as of the weekend had taken the lives of 4,361 people? He refuses even to do that.
The main argument against transparency is the ministers’ need “to exchange ideas free of pressure.” But not only do most of the cabinet ministers support publication, with the exception of Yuval Steinitz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s the confidentiality that is being used to exert pressure far from the public eye. Light, as in every other institution, would only serve to disinfect.
This attitude is part of the culture of concealment in the Netanyahu government. At a time when almost all institutions have adopted important steps to increase transparency, the cabinet refuses to answer even questions such as who participated in the discussion about the status of women (“That’s classified!”).
In the eyes of Netanyahu and his emissaries, their job is not to find a way to make the information accessible, but to conceal as much as possible. Why? As Braverman added as he exited the discussion: “In any case you have leaks.” Because Netanyahu more or less controls these leaks. But he doesn’t control transparency – and that’s the whole story.