Haaretz’s managing editor, Aluf Benn, published a series of articles (this is the main one) about an ill-fated Israel-Iran oil venture, the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC), that began in 1968 and ended in 1979, just after the Iranian Revolution. The most criticial part of the project was a pipeline running from Eilat to the Israeli port of Ashkelon. A refinery was also built there by the joint venture. The Shah agreed to ship his oil via the pipeline, thus avoiding the Suez Canal, and then transport it, via tankers jointly owned by the venture, to Europe. Israel received approximately $200-million in oil from Iran before the Shah’s regime collapsed and Iran withdrew from the venture.
At a cabinet meeting in 1979, the Begin government decided to refuse to pay Iran for its share of the venture, even though the agreement spelled out that both nations were 50-50 partners. Instead, it opened a bank account with Bank of Israel into which it deposited $250-million. That account has existed ever since then, but in secret. Benn was the first journalist to expose its existence and describe which government officials managed it. He also noted, based on public government financial reports, that at various times major portions of the proceeds were withdrawn and used for unknown purposes. After these withdrawals, some or most of the funds were replenished by new deposits.
Iran’s lawsuit against Israel asked for a total of $8-billion in compensation in two different suits. Israel has consistently lost almost every ruling over the past twenty years during which it’s been litigated. If it ultimately loses its appeals it isn’t expected to be on the hook for that full amount. But the final settlement could be far greater than what’s deposited in the Bank of Israel. Such a loss would be extremely embarrassing to the Netanyahu government, which has preached the gospel of sanctions and Iran-hating for years. For the world to be reminded by this case that Israel continues to be in business with the Iranian regime (though Iranian oil no longer flows through it, the pipeline continues to carry oil), is an inconvenient fact Bibi wishes to avoid.
In 2013, the Netanyahu government signed an executive secrecy order putting the entire matter of the oil pipeline deal and its history under wraps. This was meant to avoid the prying eyes of a lawsuit filed by Shurat HaDin, which sought to expose Iranian assets it might seize as part of its crusade to hold Arab and Muslim governments liable for alleged acts of terror.
Now, the IDF censor has asked the Shin Bet and State prosecutor (Hebrew) to open an investigation into a supposed leak by unnamed government official/s which allowed Benn to report about the secret bank account, presumably in violation of Bibi’s executive order. The Haaretz editor has publicly disputed the claim that his reporting involved any information secured from Israeli officials. Instead, he argues that anything in the articles was based on “open sources.”
I’ve never heard of this account until Benn’s report. Either he learned about it from someone associated with the arbitration case (a source based in Europe). Or he may’ve received an official document that acknowledged the account’s existence. If the latter is true, then the censor may be attempting to identify the source of the leaked document. If Benn is truthful and there is no Israeli document or source, then the IDF censor is chasing after a phantom. Considering Nahum Barnea recently reported the Shabak obtained a Palestinian confession to a crime that never happened, it’s entirely believable the censor is chasing a ghost-leaker as well.
But let’s ask a more basic question: how does Benn’s reporting damage the nation? How does the existence of the oil fund bank account endanger national security? The IDF censor has only one brief–to protect the country’s security by ensuring the press don’t publish reports that harm Israel’s security. An argument can hardly be made that Benn’s reporting did so. Did it embarrass the government? Certainly. So if embarrassing a prime minister constitutes a breach of national security, then Haaretz is guilty. But in most western democracies causing political embarrassment isn’t a security offense. If it has become one in Israel, then the world should further re-evaluate the level of press freedom and democracy it credits to the nation.
Related to the oil pipeline company, the venture has been cloaked so deeply in secrecy that it’s undergone no environmental review or regulation. As a result, it caused the greatest environmental disaster in the country’s history when 5-million liters of oil leaked into a pristine nature preserve. No one accepted responsibility because no one was responsible. The pipeline, like the company itself, is almost a ghost. Management of the company is also opaque. The top echelon directing the company is appointed by politicians who reward their cronies with cushy appointments. None of this is surprising in the Israeli public sector, in which such corruption and conflicts of interest are routine.
The international NGOs who publish annual rankings of press freedom around the world may want to give this case a review. Israel’s rankings haven’t been stellar of late. Cases like this can’t help.