Release the Testimony on the Bus 300 Affair

It's hard to believe that Israel's attorney general and state prosecutor don't realize that a healthy country can face up to the dark chapters in its history.

Gidi Weitz
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Maybe they didn’t want to ruin President Shimon Peres' 90th birthday celebrations; maybe they don’t understand how enlightened countries are supposed to deal with distressing memories. One thing is certain: Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador recently made a decision that's worlds away from common sense and an understanding of the basic laws of democracy.

Over the last few months, these two have dragged their feet and are stubbornly refusing to allow the publication of testimony by political leaders and the heads of the Shin Bet security service during the 1980s. At issue is the Bus 300 affair, when two Palestinian bus hijackers were captured alive by the Shin Bet and later killed. The most intriguing testimony – which remains locked in a safe at the State Archives – is by Peres, who protected the Shin Bet's transgressors.

This affair is one of the most immoral and difficult chapters in Peres' controversial career, even more than “the stinking maneuver” – the Labor Party’s unsuccessful attempt in 1990 to withdraw from a unity government with Likud and form a government with Shas. It's also worse than the attempt to remove Prime Minister Levi Eshkol on the eve of the Six-Day War.

Weinstein and Lador's main reason to justify classifying this historic information is utterly embarrassing. In response to a petition by this writer to the High Court of Justice,Weinstein and Lador say publication of the testimony would damage Israel’s foreign relations. Yes, according to them, if the testimony by Peres, Yitzhak Shamir and the members of the Shin Bet are published, Israeli ambassadors will be sent home, countries will sever their ties with us and Israelis won’t be able to get past border control at airports. And quick-thinking lawyers will run to The Hague and file a claim against the heads of the Shin Bet and the government over an incident that occurred nearly 30 years ago. Even Micronesia will turn its back on us.

Shrouded in an atmosphere of total secrecy that more befits an undeveloped country, Weinstein and Lador also refused to reveal the Foreign Ministry's classified opinion on the issue. “The exposure of the requested material will damage the country’s foreign relations,” the state says. “Due to the sensitivity of these considerations, they cannot be detailed in an unclassified professional opinion. However, the classified professional opinion prepared by the Foreign Ministry, which refers to concerns that Israel’s foreign relations would be damaged if the material were exposed, will be presented to the court."

The state used this controversial argument a few years ago when it demanded that publication of documents and images on the Deir Yassin massacre be withheld. Sixty-five years may have passed since the members of underground militias reached the village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but who’s counting? It’s hard to believe that mature, aware adults like Weinstein and Lador are playing such a childish game with history.

The story of the Bus 300 affair has already been told in countless ways, and the exposure of Israeli leaders' testimony would only have two outcomes. First, we could examine the version of events offered by the people in power at the time. Second, and more importantly, the state could send a clear message that it can bravely face dark chapters in its history, uncover them completely, and learn the necessary lessons. It’s hard to believe that Weinstein and Lador don’t realize that a healthy country, like a healthy soul, can accommodate the repressed, sinister parts as well.

Weinstein and Lador should take a cue from the way Germany opened up the Stasi archives that told the tales of collaborators with the most paranoid, sophisticated secret service of the last century. The yellowing pages in the archives were extremely embarrassing to senior government officials in East Germany and collaborators in other countries. Exposing the truth doesn't damage foreign relations, it improves them.

It seems Weinstein and Lador were persuaded to take a reactionary stance by the Foreign Ministry, and mainly the Shin Bet. This shadowy organization isn’t interested in reopening old wounds and continues to deceive state institutions and protect members who committed the sin of killing prisoners. The Shin Bet never really renounced the offenders in the affair.

The exposure of the Bus 300 affair was a defining moment of Israel's prosecution. This was perhaps the first time its leaders confronted politicians and intelligence people and insisted on the supremacy of the law. This insistence cost then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir his job. What would have happened if Weinstein and Lador were the decision makers at the time? Can we assume they would have swallowed the Shin Bet’s version of events?

Shin Bet agents with the Palestinian Majdi Abu Juma'a after the attack on Bus 300, 1984.Credit: Alex Levac