Behind closed doors

While the subcommittee sessions have traditionally been kept secret, the full committee meetings, while also behind closed doors, were usually followed by briefings to reporters.

Wide view of the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Wide view of the Knesset
The news that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee would be investigating various aspects of the way in which Operation Protective Edge was carried out has drawn criticism, in particular from members of the Center-Left opposition in the parliament, who feel that the examination must be conducted in a more “independent” manner, instead of in a committee and subcommittees that are considered the home court of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
However, the role of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has gone through a transformation recently that is the subject of no less a controversy than whether it should be investigating the Gaza military operation.
While the subcommittee sessions have traditionally been kept secret, the full committee meetings, while also behind closed doors, were usually followed by briefings to reporters, most often by a spokesman, either of the Knesset, or in more recent times, of the committee itself.
Some Knesset correspondents would relay the information in their reports as though they themselves were inside the closed meetings. Others, such as in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Radio’s English News, cited the briefing as the source of their information.
Either way, that was the practice for many years, certainly during most of the time that I have covered the Knesset for the past 25 years. It is true that there were occasions when meetings were deemed too sensitive to hold a briefing afterward, but they were rare. Now, the face-to-face encounters between a spokesman and reporters have been stopped altogether. Sometimes, written statements are issued. This, of course, restricts the open exchange between the committee representative and the media that would take place in a briefing. And frankly, it’s gotten to the point that often even a statement is not issued.
The openness of the committee was stopped by the previous chairman, and current foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, and appears to be continuing under the chairmanship of Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin. The argument for restricting the flow of information has logic to it. Committee members had been complaining that the top officials appearing before the full panel were providing only superficial information, making it more like a press conference than an intimate gathering with a parliamentary committee that is supposed to supervise the activities of the state’s diplomatic and security establishments.
The top officials countered this criticism by arguing that they had to be careful about what information they relayed to the committee members, because they knew that there would be a tellall briefing to reporters right afterward.
A middle road was sought for a while, under the terms of which the spokesman’s briefings continued, but at times, in consultation with committee officials, reporters would be told that there were certain comments made during the meeting that would not be revealed.
Some reporters objected to this method, saying that over the years, the Knesset correspondents have, in any case, submitted sensitive stories to the military censor, and that the committee should not decide for itself what should be considered classified.
But now the doors have been shut altogether, and there are serious ramifications.
No official briefing means that there is pressure on reporters to seek unofficial information from committee members. Not that the official briefings were always completely accurate, but at least they gave correspondents the opportunity to contrast the official take on a particular meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee with what various committee members were saying about the meeting.
I would argue that it serves the public to have at least some knowledge of what is being said in these sessions. A dramatic example of this was the issue that turned out to be the main objective of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the terror tunnels in the Gaza Strip.
For years, Knesset reporters were being told, after countless committee meetings, of the smuggling tunnels from Sinai to Gaza, and of the calls by Israeli officials on Egypt to act against them.
Then, the correspondents were told of tunnels within Gaza. With the 2006 abduction of Gilad Schalit, if not before, it became clear that Palestinian groups had the ability to take Israeli troops and civilians by surprise across the Gaza-Israel border, but the extent of such tunnels apparently would become known only later. As time passed, reporters were told at the committee briefings that complex tunnel infrastructures were being built.
In more recent times, it was harder for correspondents covering the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to monitor just how serious the tunnel threat had become, because they were not receiving the kind of extensive briefings that could express just how concerned the defense establishment might have been about the phenomenon.
Over this summer, there was much political and public criticism of what was perceived to be a lack of military intelligence about the tunnels, or at least the extent to which they had been developed.
For a Knesset reporter, it was now more difficult to appraise the situation.
Perhaps, if we were better briefed, we could have pushed the issue into the public’s consciousness earlier, instead of needing the “excuse” of the kidnapping and brutal murder of three Israeli teens in order to carry out a military operation to act against the tunnels.
In short, the media should be able to monitor a committee that is supervising government foreign and defense policy.
The change in the complexion of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee goes even further. For many years, it was generally known that there would be steady appearances by the top names in the diplomatic and security echelons: the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, IDF chief of staff, and head of Military Intelligence, as well as less frequent meetings with the heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad. That kind of set schedule has all but disappeared, unless we’re just not being told about it.
When Liberman left the committee chairmanship nearly a year ago, there was a protracted political battle within the government coalition over who would replace him. In the meantime, the committee was paralyzed. But even now, after Elkin has taken over, the schedule has been less regular, and the top-level appearances are erratic at best.
There was a proposal made not too long ago to make certain committee appearances open to the media, and even televised live on the Knesset Channel, when the content would not pose a threat to state security. For the most part, however, that has not been followed up.
In the meantime, reporters, and one hopes by definition also the public, should be demanding that thorough briefings after Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meetings be restored, to draw a balance between maintaining state security and the public’s right to know.
David Ze’ev Jablinowitz is a managing editor and political correspondent at Israel Radio’s English News.