Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Amos Regev, the editor-[in-chief] of Israel Hayom, is a personal friend and my conversations with him are not within the framework of my job.” This probably sounds like a made-up quote to you. Not at all. Here’s the story:
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On February 11, 2015, four months ago, I had an idea. I wanted to show how deep-rooted the ties are between the free Israel Hayom daily newspaper and the prime minister. You can see it with your own eyes when the paper is printed. But in order to prove that there is no telepathy going on between the Prime Minister’s Bureau and the actual headlines, we needed to show what happens before it is printed. The idea was stupid in its simplicity – why not file a freedom of information request to the Prime Minister’s Office and get the information on all conversations between Netanyahu and Regev, and with Sheldon Adelson, the owner? After all, in the PMO, every call and meeting, and when it happened, is recorded. All this information is then saved. Why didn’t I think of it before?
I filed the request on February 11, four months ago. The PMO did not provide any response. No big surprise. There is no ministry that shows greater contempt for the Freedom of Information Law.
On Thursday, the answer finally arrived. I nearly fell off my chair. Let’s start with seemingly petty matters. The law allows every government ministry a maximum of 30 days to respond to such a request. If they want to extend this period by another 30 days, the ministry’s director general must sign off on it, and then inform you of this decision in writing. If they want to extend the period further, then it is only on condition that the information is really complex and difficult to accumulate and process – and then it’s possible to sign an extension for a maximum of 60 more days (again, informing the person who filed the request of the extension). Add all these times together and you will reach, in truly exceptional cases, a period of four months.
They never informed me of anything, and the information is not particularly hard or complex to collect. I wrote about this to Ayelet Moshe, the person in charge of implementing the Freedom of Information Law in the Prime Minister’s Office. She answered me with this amazing response: “We have met the dates according to the law, even though, to my regret, I have not been able to update you.” Why was she, “to her regret,” unable to update me? What, she was out of the office, busy fighting the Iranians?
This doesn’t really matter, though. Let’s look at the crux of the answer.
The Prime Minister’s Office wrote that the documentation of the prime minister’s conversations until March 2014 have been transferred to the State Archives, so the information does not have to be provided according to the law governing official government archives. This is a well-known trick (which didn’t work, to the best of my memory, during the 2011 Trajtenberg committee meetings on lowering the cost of living), and is, without doubt, a sad attempt not to reveal the information. Let’s say Netanyahu wants to know exactly when he spoke to President Barack Obama in February 2014. What do they do then – send someone to the State Archives?
As for the period from March 2014 through the end of 2014, Moshe writes these astonishing sentences: “It has been reported by the relevant bodies that the two people [Amos Regev and Sheldon Adelson] that the request relates to are personal friends of the prime minster, whose conversations with them are private conversations that are not related to the ministerial work of the prime minister. Therefore, the information concerning them will not be provided.”
I needed to read these sentences a few times to believe it. The prime minister describes his conversations with the editor-in-chief of the most widely distributed newspaper in the country as personal conversations? Friendly? That are not related to work? What do they talk about? Bibi’s hobbies? Cigars? Women?
Before the Knesset election in March, a petition was filed with the Central Elections Committee asking to determine that Israel Hayom was in fact a part of Likud’s election spending. The chairman of the committee, Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, justifiably ruled that there was inadequate evidence of the connection between the newspaper and the candidate for prime minister – and rejected the petition.
It seems to me this new letter from the PMO is drawing us closer to such evidence. After the court receives my Freedom of Information Law petition on the matter, which I will definitely be filing soon, maybe we will come a little bit closer.
This article was originally published on Raviv Drucker’s blog in Hebrew. The writer is a reporter for Channel 10 television.