The authorities have spent three years looking into the so-called "Harpaz affair," which involved a forged document to influence the choice of the next Israeli army chief of staff. More importantly, a series of letters shows the degree to which then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi wanted the security services and law enforcement to broaden the investigation, due to "personal attacks" against him.
Three years ago, Yedioth Ahronoth reporter Ronen Bergman was crafting a long article on the Harpaz affair when the IDF Spokesman’s Office learned that the piece would not be flattering to Ashkenazi. Bergman is a high-profile journalist and the author of several books including “The Secret War With Iran.” He and his editors were invited in for a talk at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on November 8, 2010.
Among those taking part were Deputy IDF Spokesman Ofer Kol and the head of the chief of staff’s office, Col. Erez Weiner. For some of the conversation the IDF spokesman at the time, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, was present.
During the talk, Weiner held a binder with highly classified documents requested by the Shin Bet security service. The documents dealt with the alleged forger of the "Harpaz" document, Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz. At the meeting, Weiner read parts of the documents aloud.
The day after the meeting, the spokesman’s office sent a letter responding to written questions from Bergman.
“The information provided to you by Col. Weiner was intended to clarify matters for Yedioth Ahronoth ... [including] the examination of relevant supporting documents,” the letter said. “We would be happy if you used these in your article.”
A censored version of Bergman’s article was eventually published in Yedioth Ahronoth.
Ashkenazi, Weiner and Bergman declined to comment for this article. Benayahu rejected any suggestion that he was involved in an effort to open a Shin Bet or criminal investigation against any journalist, including Bergman. He called this “completely baseless.”
But Benayhau said that during the period in question, the heads of IDF field security and military censorship contacted Military Intelligence and the chief of staff with concerns that four journalists, including Bergman, were illegally holding documents containing some of Israel’s most important secrets.
“I don’t know how and if the matter was addressed, and I have no idea if there was an investigation by any authority,” Benayahu said.
Still, it appears that Bergman and perhaps other journalists who wrote stories about the Harpaz affair became targets of an investigation initiated by the chief of staff’s office.
Relying on the text of Bergman’s article as it was submitted to the military censors, Ashkenazi sent a letter to the Shin Bet and the Defense Ministry Security Authority and received the highest security classification. A copy of the letter was sent to the defense minister.
“Since the beginning of the week we have seen a series of articles sourced by documents and data sent at someone’s initiative to a large number of journalists,” Ashkenazi wrote. The documents on Harpaz came from various parts of the IDF and the Defense Ministry, he added, saying that the leak threatened “deep exposure of operations and work methods.”
“It is requested that an end be brought to the proliferation of leaks and the use of classified material for personal attacks against me .... I am asking that we work together under the direction and capabilities of the Shin Bet to locate the source of the leaks and bring them to an immediate end,” Ashkenazi wrote, adding that the IDF would cooperate fully.
“[I] expect the opening of a quick and resolute investigation that will bring this wild and irresponsible behavior to an end - and the sooner the better,” he wrote.
Dissed by Diskin
Key was the phrase “personal attacks against me.” On the copy of the letter in the chief of staff’s office, Weiner wrote by hand, “for talk with Shin Bet director."
The Shin Bet chief at the time was Yuval Diskin, a friend of Ashkenazi’s and his ally in their opposition to an Israeli attack on Iran. On this issue they clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
But Diskin disappointed Ashkenazi in a letter sent on November 24. Diskin wrote that no investigation would be opened because much of the classified information had been stricken by the censor before it was published.
“The fact that the leaks were intended, among other things, ‘to personally attack you,’ as you put it, cannot form the basis for a decision to open a Shin Bet investigation,” Diskin wrote.
Ashkenazi’s aides began saying the classified documents were still held by journalists, making the case similar to the one against Haaretz journalist Uri Blau, who had received classified documents from Anat Kamm when she was serving in the IDF. For that transgression she is now doing four and a half years in prison.
In the Kamm case, Blau was indicted for possessing classified military documents, even though an article he wrote based on those documents was published after the piece had gone through the military censor. (After a plea bargain, Blau agreed to do community service.)
On November 29, five days after Diskin’s refusal, the chief of staff’s office sent another letter with the highest security classification, this time to the attorney general. Ashkenazi told the attorney general that while the publication of classified material had been prevented, the sensitive documents remained in the hands of journalists and were a leak risk.
“As in the case of Uri Blau from Haaretz, I would think that the leak of the documents and the presence of external parties is the problem that needs to be addressed .... I would ask for your involvement in ordering the opening of such an investigation,” Ashkenazi wrote.
When the attorney general did not oblige, Benayahu, the IDF spokesman, went on Israel Radio’s “Seder Yom” program announcing that certain media outlets possessed documents containing some of Israel’s most important secrets.
“We want them to be returned to the possession of the defense establishment or to be destroyed, and we can’t do that without law enforcement officials,” Benayahu said.
Surprisingly, Benayahu’s spoke on the radio about the conversation with Bergman and his editors, which had been considered off the record. Later that day, Benayahu was quoted on the IDF’s website strongly denying that the documents were related to Harpaz and his ties to Ashkenazi. He also did not mention that a number of journalists were expected of involvement, not just Bergman.
On December 29, the chief of staff’s office sent a letter to the attorney general requesting an update on the opening of an investigation; the letter sent a month before had yet to be answered. It appears the attorney general’s office did not respond to the letter either.
In 2011, during the state comptroller’s investigation of the Harpaz affair, both Weiner and Ashkenazi pointed to Bergman when asked about leaks that damaged state security.
The overall picture is odd. The IDF chief and his top officers tried to have a Shin Bet and criminal investigation opened against a journalist who, according to them, used classified information to attack the chief of staff. After presenting that journalist with information from classified Shin Bet files, they accused him of holding classified information. The IDF even used the Uri Blau case to try to pressure Israel’s investigative authorities into action against Bergman.
For the rule of law and freedom of the press, it can be said the story had a happy ending in that the Shin Bet and attorney general ignored the chief of staff’s requests. It’s not clear what would have happened had the target been a journalist less famous than Bergman working for a newspaper less important than Yedioth Ahronoth. It’s also not clear if this is an issue the IDF’s top officers should be busying themselves with.