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(photo credit: Channel 2)
The Winograd Committee will begin publishing the censored testimony of the witnesses who appeared before it two weeks after it releases its interim report, starting with those of the prime minister, the defense minister and the former chief of staff, the state informed the High Court of Justice on Monday.
The announcement came in response to a High Court demand at the end of a tense two-hour hearing held Sunday morning that the state provide a timetable for the publication of the testimony by the end of the day.
The demand for the timetable was originally included in a petition filed by Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On, who also asked the court to order the Winograd Committee to publish the censored testimony of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former Chief of Military Staff Dan Halutz before it published the interim report.
Gal-On rejected the state's proposed timetable, and argued that in order for the public to properly assess the committee's interim report, it must have first-hand knowledge of what the three war leaders said during their testimony. All Winograd Committee meetings were held behind closed doors.
"Following a consultation held by the committee, it decided (by a majority of its members) to begin steady publication of those portions of the minutes of the testimony which can be revealed in accordance with the principles included in High Court ruling 258/07," the state informed the court. High Court ruling 258/07, which the court issued after an earlier petition by Gal-On, ordered the committee to publish the censored testimony "in reasonable time" and before it published its final report.
"The first transcripts to be published will be those of the prime minister, the defense minister and the former chief of staff, and they will be released at the end of two weeks following publication of the interim report (which is expected by the end of April,)" the state added. "During that time, the committee will complete the necessary procedures to prepare them for publication."
Gal-On said she would inform the court on Monday that she rejected the state's reply. "It is of critical importance to publish the transcripts before the interim report is published so that it will be possible to refute false testimony," she said. "The state's [response] is a low point in converting the state attorney's office and the Winograd Committee into puppets of the prime minister."
The hearing itself was virtually unprecedented for the harshness of the court's criticism of the conduct of the state and the Winograd Committee. Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch accused the two institutions of trying to reverse two court decisions, one of them the final ruling in Gal-On's earlier petition.
In that ruling, the court ordered the Winograd Committee "to take the necessary steps to release those parts of the testimony whose disclosure is permitted within a reasonable time and before it presents its final report to the government."
The court said that in deciding what to publish and what to censor, the committee should balance the conflicting principles of the public's right to know versus the requirements of national security.
Several weeks after the ruling was handed down and the committee had not yet released any testimony, Gal-On petitioned the High Court again. This time she demanded that the Winograd Committee publish the testimony of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz before it published its interim report, and that it present a timetable for publishing the rest of the testimony.
The state submitted three responses to the petition.
On March 20, it told the court that "as long as this will not interfere with the committee's fulfillment of its task," it would publish the testimony of the three leaders before releasing the interim report.
A few days later, during a hearing on the petition, Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin turned this response into a court decision. "It emerged during today's hearing that the Winograd Committee intends to publish the testimony relating to the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of military staff next week [i.e. before Pessah,]" wrote Rivlin.
In a second response, published April 1, the state told the court that "it reached a unanimous decision to postpone the continuation of its deliberations on the release of the testimony until after it publishes the interim report."
In a third response, dated April 13, the state explained why the Winograd Committee needed time to work out all of the problems involved in determining which parts of the testimony could be published and why it could not release any of it while it was busy preparing the interim report.
It maintained that it had discovered serious problems after publishing the partial testimony of Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "What was published was misleading and it was not Peres's fault," explained the state's representative, Attorney Osnat Mandel, head of the High Court petition section of the State Attorney's Office.
But Beinisch rejected the state's arguments. "I cannot recall such a total reversal by the state of its previous positions," she told Mandel. "You said you would be ready to publish the testimony [of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz] within two days. You simply regretted that promise."
Beinisch also attacked the state for failing to reply to the second part of Gal-On's petition regarding the demand for a timetable for publishing the censored transcripts. "When will you publish some of the testimony?" she pressed Mandel. "What is your timetable? I am asking you, what is your timetable?"
Mandel told Beinisch that she wanted to explain to the court the problems involved in releasing the censored testimony, some of which came to light only after Peres's had been released. But Beinisch replied that nothing terrible had happened to Peres and that was no reason to delay publication of more testimony.
"The committee must say when and how much time it needs to publish the transcripts. It does not have to start from the beginning to establish the criteria for what to publish.You must not reopen the ruling [of High Court 258/07.] That's for sure. But this is what it sounds like you are doing from your response. I want to know when you will publish the testimony."
At the end of the hearing, Beinisch ordered the state to reply to that question by the end of the day. She said she would hand down the ruling soon.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to avoid facing the wrath of Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee MKs after the release of the Winograd report, MKs on the committee alleged on Sunday.
Olmert had originally been scheduled to meet with committee members on April 30, shortly after the first part of the report was expected to be published. But the prime minister asked committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi to move up his appearance before the committee and it was rescheduled for this Wednesday.
"It is perfectly legitimate for the prime minister to want to clear his schedule for the time after the report comes out," Hanegbi said.
"He will end up speaking publicly and to the Knesset enough after Winograd [is released] regardless." Officials in the Prime Minister's Office denied that the change in the timing of Olmert's appearance before the committee had anything to do with the release of the Winograd report. But anti-Olmert MKs said he was trying to bypass them at a potentially difficult time for him.
However, other Olmert critics on the committee said they would give Olmert the benefit of the doubt.
"I attack the prime minister so much already," Labor leadership candidate Danny Yatom said. "I am not worried about us lacking opportunities to attack him after the report comes out."
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