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Release the Transcripts of Israel’s COVID Cabinet Meetings

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating over Haaretz’s petition, drafted by attorney Tal Lieblich, to release transcripts of cabinet and ministerial committee meetings on the coronavirus.

For more than a year, this battle has been wending its way through the courts.

In addition to its demand that the full transcripts be released for public scrutiny, the petition seeks to mount a challenge in principle to a rule that automatically defines all ministerial meetings as classified – a rule that leads to documentation being buried in the archives for at least 30 years.

The petition – which was joined by attorney Shachar Ben-Meir, the Movement for Freedom of Information and other media outlets – was submitted after the previous cabinet secretary, Tzachi Braverman, refused to use his power to release the transcripts.

He thereby prevented any possibility of transparent, real-time oversight of the government’s work at a time when ministers were meeting every night to approve draconian emergency regulations that had a radical impact on Israelis’ lives, businesses and entire sectors of the country.

Moreover, he did so despite the fact that Article 35 of the Basic Law on the Government, which he relied on to conceal the content of these discussions, states that the secrecy rule applies only to matters related to the country’s security and foreign relations, not to a completely civilian issue like the pandemic.

The previous government’s main argument against transparency was the ministers’ need “to exchange opinions free of pressure.”

This is a ridiculous argument, given that the government was engaged nonstop in selectively leaking information flattering to its leaders and that the vast majority of ministers serving in the coronavirus cabinet – including Benny Gantz, who was then alternate prime minister – actually supported releasing the transcripts.

Gantz recently made another appeal for the transcripts’ release, this time to the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett. Given the fears of another wave of the virus, as well as his campaigns to improve the government’s handling of the pandemic, Bennett ought to order the transcripts released and conduct any meetings on the subject henceforth with maximal transparency. This is also important in order to increase public confidence in the government by making it clear that the current cabinet doesn’t share the Netanyahu’s government’s culture of secrecy.

Nevertheless, a cabinet decision to release the material wouldn’t obviate the need for a decision in principle on a case that could change Israel’s culture of governmental transparency.

During last week’s decisive hearing at the Supreme Court, court president Esther Hayut told the government’s attorney that “The Basic Law on the Government teaches the opposite of the existing practice. You make transcripts, but you never release any of them.”

She also said the government had failed to consider each case on its merits, “even though the law allows it to use its discretion.”

We must therefore hope the court won’t leave the decision to the cabinet, but will rule in favor of releasing the transcripts out of a principled opposition to unacceptable concealment.