The Mysterious Case of the Ex-Prime Minister's Memoir

Debbie Hill/Pool File Photo via AP

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert leaves the Israeli Supreme Court in 2015. 

It's a textbook mystery. I'd enjoy watching it as a film. I enjoy watching it less as fact, not fiction, when it takes place in the country where I live, especially when the victim may be freedom of the press.

Last Thursday, cops raided the office of the Yediot Ahronot publishing house in Rishon Letzion, near Tel Aviv. They had a warrant to seize all documents and disks “connected to the autobiographical book of prisoner Ehud Olmert.”

According to the publishing company, they took a lot more. They copied thousands of the CEO's emails. Either at the office or at the home of the editor working on Olmert's memoir, they also reportedly left with material from a book by former defense minister Moshe Yaalon, and one by journalist Ben Caspit about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The publisher is part of the media empire of the daily Yediot Ahronot, one of Israel's two largest newspapers. 

Freedom of the press is not quite as broad a constitutional right in Israel as in the United States. There's still a military censor, for instance, though its powers were drastically reduced by a court decision nearly 30 years ago. That said, a police raid on a major media outlet's editorial office just isn't done—or at least it wasn't until now.

The first mystery is who made the decision to do this. The second is why.

Prisoner Ehud Olmert was prime minister in a former life. In 2008, under cascading investigations for corruption, he resigned. The sundry trials, acquittals, convictions, and appeals went on for too long for anyone but police reporters to keep track of.

A year and a half ago, Olmert finally started serving a 27-month term. Israeli practice is that well-behaved inmates are released after two-thirds of their terms. Olmert's early-release hearing was this Sunday. The Yediot raid was three days earlier.

Olmert has been spending his time inside writing his memoir. Former politicians and senior official often write memoirs, especially when they are trying to restore a damaged reputation. Naturally, these people know many things about national security that are still classified. Under Israeli rules, such memoirs must be reviewed, pre-publication, both by the military censor and by a ministerial committee. In Olmert's case, as someone serving time, he's required to submit what he wrote to the censor before he can give it to his publisher.

A month ago, State Attorney Shai Nitzan—the country's No. 2 legal official—unsuccessfully asked to delay Olmert's parole hearing. Nitzan said Olmert was under investigation for smuggling classified material out of prison, in the form of manuscript pages carried by one of his attorneys. There are conflicting claims on whether the material had already been to censor, as required, and on whether Olmert had kept secret documents after leaving office.  

Ostensibly, the Yediot raid was part of the leak investigation. But the story doesn't fit together—certainly not as justification for a police action that treated the publishing house as a suspected criminal operation, and that created a precedent for seizing journalistic material before publication.

Rules against high officials keeping classified documents haven't been enforced in the past. In its report on the Yediot affair, Haaretz noted that Ariel Sharon not only kept stacks of highly sensitive papers at his farm, he said so in his testimony to a state commission of inquiry.

Moreover, there's no evidence that the publisher was evading censorship rules, or that the secrets involved were explosive. Ronen Bergman, the prominent writer on Israeli intelligence matters, wrote in a carefully worded column in Yediot Ahronot that he “understands” that Olmert has written about affairs for which anyone can find millions of hits on “that devious search engine, Google.”

So who decided to search a publishing house? The police initially said they'd been sent by the Defense Ministry’s information security department. Defense Ministry officials responded that they learned of the raid from media reports. The police then said they'd been sent by the state attorney's office. State Attorney Nitzan said he'd consulted with his boss, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, and with the Defense Ministry and the police. The Defense Ministry denials got angrier.

Someone here is lying, and everyone understands that the raid was a Bad Idea.

The least nefarious explanation I've seen is that the State Attorney's Office has a grudge against Olmert, after years of court battles led to a relatively short sentence, and that the prosecutors lost their heads in their determination to prevent his release.

Here I should mention one more twist: In the Israeli system, the attorney general is supposed to be a quasi-judicial figure. But Mendelblit was Netanyahu's pick for the job. This is messy, because the attorney general personally supervises criminal investigations of the prime minister. Right now, at least two separate bribery investigations are underway, and seem to be moving inordinately slowly.

There's an appearance, at least, of a double standard. Mendelblit seems quite exercised about the actions of a disgraced ex-prime minister already doing time, and about what he might say about government actions in his memoir. He seems much less eager to follow evidence against the incumbent prime minister.

Perhaps it's paranoid for me to wonder if the attorney general is sending a message to the media to be very careful. But then, Netanyahu just proposed a law to limit funding by foreign governments to nonprofits in Israel—when virtually all such funding goes to human rights groups critical of government actions. The education minister, Naftali Bennett, wants to institute a “code of ethics” for academia that would bar professors from “promoting their political worldview in class.” And the police just raided a publisher, for reasons that don't add up.

Israel isn't Turkey. Netanyahu is far from being Erdogan. But I do feel that there's too little air in the room. In a detective mystery, I'd want to know what happens next. In real life, I don't want it to happen. 

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