Treasury said to block bill to assert government control over National Library

Legal counsel rules matter will be kept out of budget voting, noting ‘odd and irregular’ manner in which it was approved by cabinet

An architectural rendering of the new National Library of Israel building, set to open in 2023. The building was designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. (Herzog & de Meuron 2022)
An architectural rendering of the new National Library of Israel building, set to open in 2023. The building was designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. (Herzog & de Meuron 2022)

The Finance Ministry has blocked the cabinet’s effort to assert greater governmental control over the National Library of Israel, according to a Sunday report, after ministers attempted to do so through the upcoming Arrangements Law — a legislative package accompanying the state budget that determines how funds will be disbursed.

The legislation proposed by Education Minister Yoav Kisch would have allowed the government to determine the makeup of the library’s board, a move reportedly aimed at pushing out the rector — the former state attorney who was a key figure in the decision to try Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s for alleged corruption.

The cabinet approved the plan despite opposition from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said it had not gone through the appropriate professional and legal procedures.

But Haaretz reported Sunday that, in recent days, the treasury’s legal counsel, Asi Messing, notified the Education Ministry that, with the attorney general’s backing, the issue would not be included in the Arrangements Law, noting that it was “at no point part of” the budget plan.

“It was submitted separately, was not reviewed as is required by Finance Ministry professionals, is not in line with any of the accepted aims of the economic plan, is not sanctioned by me, and was not approved by the attorney general,” he said.

Messing added that the addition “was done in an odd and irregular manner.”

Kisch can still submit the proposal as a separate bill, but it will not be fast-tracked alongside the budget.

Hebrew media reports on the bill have noted that right-wing politicians have been targeting the library for the past year — since the appointment of former state attorney Shai Nitzan as library rector.

Knesset Committee Chairman Yoav Kisch leads a discussion on rules of ethics for Knesset members, January 17, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90/File)

Nitzan was heavily involved in preparing the corruption charges against Netanyahu. He came under fire by Netanyahu and his allies throughout the investigation of the prime minister in three corruption probes, and particularly since the filing of charges against him that include bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Nitzan has been portrayed by the prime minister’s associates, without proof, as a left-wing activist bent on removing the premier from office through illegitimate means.

After the cabinet approved adding the changes to the National Library Law to the Arrangements Law, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem warned that, if the changes were made, it would pull its content from the institution.

As first reported by Channel 12, the university — whose materials amount to around a third of the library’s total content — sent Kisch a letter warning that it “would not hesitate to demand the return of all the books and materials given to the library” if its independence were harmed without deliberation or negotiation.

The letter added that the university could also cut its funding to the National Library.

The university materials at the library include writings of Isaac Newton, the archive of Shai Agnon’s works, the original copy of Israel’s anthem Hatikva written by Naftali Herz Imber, the Rothschild Haggadah, considered the oldest Passover Haggadah in the world, Maimonides’ writings, and more.

Former state attorney Shai Nitzan speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

The National Library of Israel was founded in 1892 as a world center for preserving the spiritual treasures of the Jewish people. In 2007, the Knesset enacted the National Library Law, granting it independent status by law, in order to document the cultural creation in the State of Israel and provide free access to the general public to the unique collections housed there.

Efforts by the government to take control of the library come alongside their attempts to radically limit the country’s judiciary, an effort that has been met by mass protests and intense public resistance, with top public figures warning of the potential for an unprecedented internal crisis.

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