Israel's envoy to the U.S. Ron Dermer claims that revealing the guest list, which included Secretary of State John Kerry, could undermine Israel's foreign relations. So why were U.S. journalists invited?
The decision was stated in an official letter sent by the Foreign Ministry last Thursday, June 26, in response to a request made by Haaretz under the Freedom of Information Law on April 29.
“The Foreign Ministry is prohibited from providing the information in question, under article 9(A)(1) of the freedom of information law,” read the letter, signed by Aryeh Zini, the official responsible for implementing the law in the Foreign Ministry. “Being hosted in the home of an ambassador, not to mention the home of the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., is a distinctly diplomatic act. Publicly revealing the names of participants, as well as the content of their meeting and correspondence related to it, as well as anything else stemming from the meeting, could cause harm to Israel’s foreign relations.
The whole affair began on the eve of the second night of Passover, when Kerry released a holiday greeting to the Jewish people . In a message spread to hundreds of journalists, and posted on the U.S. State Department website, Kerry stated that he would be at Dermer’s home for the second Passover seder.
Any time the U.S. secretary of state visits the home of the Israeli ambassador, not to mention for a Passover seder, is worth mentioning. A few days after the seder, Haaretz approached the spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington, Aaron Sagui, with a request for information about the meal, including a guest list.
After three attempts to obtain the information were turned down, Haaretz filed an official request with the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to receive the details, as per the Freedom of Information Law. After 30 days, the ministry had yet to provide the information, instead choosing to activate the clause that would grant it an additional 30 days. In response, attorney Tali Lieblich, from the firm Lieblich-Moser, contacted the Foreign Ministry, representing Haaretz, and stated that the ministry’s delay amounts to “dragging its feet.”
Foreign Ministry officials told Haaretz that the request for the information was dealt with by many high-ranking officials in the ministry, including attorneys from the ministry’s legal department. Two officials approached Dermer and asked him to reconsider his refusal to disclose the information, in order to quickly put an end to the whole affair. Dermer claimed that the event was a private seder, and not a formal dinner, and that he is not required to provide information on such a private event to the public or media.
Officials within the Foreign Ministry added that for weeks, emails and classified messages were exchanged between officials in Jerusalem and vice ambassador Reuven Ezer, who represented Dermer.
Legal advisors for the Foreign Ministry stated that an event attended by the American secretary of state is not a private event, and that they would be hard-pressed to defend Dermer if the issue were to reach the courts. This is seemingly the reason that Dermer has changed his story. After first claiming that the event was private, he begun to claim that the event was “distinctly diplomatic.”
The Foreign Ministry and Dermer’s claim that revealing the guest list at the second seder could harm Israel’s foreign relations is most curious, as Haaretz has learned that at least one American journalist, Andrea Mitchell from NBC, attended the event.
Mitchell’s attendance was revealed by another guest – Gary Bauer – a right-wing Evangelical who challenged George Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 1999. Bauer chairs two extreme right-wing organizations that criticize President Obama over his relations with Israel, “Christians United for Israel,” and “The Emergency Committee for Israel.”
Bauer wrote on his website that Dermer’s family was present at the seder, along with many known figures from the Washington political scene, including Andrea Mitchell. Blogger Marsha Cohen, who from the blog lobelog.com, discovered Bauer’s leak.
The Foreign Ministry actually agreed to disclose one detail about the event – the menu. According to the ministry, a catering service was not enlisted to prepare the food, which was prepared by the staff at the ambassador’s home. For those interested – aside from the matza ball soup, guests were served fairly unattractive vegetarian fare. Let’s hope the dinner conversation was interesting, at least.