The Israeli army and the Defense Ministry provided some arresting details on Monday about the rotten “Lavon Affair” of 1954, but did not provide a clear answer to the still lingering question of who authorized terror attacks in Egypt in hopes of preventing the pending British departure.
The documents made public by the IDF Archives reveal a standoff between Col. Binyamin Jibli, the commander of military intelligence, and Pinchas Lavon, the defense minister who ultimately resigned, where each accuses the other of lying.
“To me one thing is clear. I, from your mouth, after the meeting at your house, received the order to activate the squads,” Jibli said to Lavon on December 28, 1954, several months after the Israeli operatives who sought to implement the plan had been caught.
Lavon, his tone threatening and cajoling, told Jibli, “I’m speaking with you after I spoke with the prime minister and I told him that I want to give you another chance to tell the truth.”
After asserting that he had not met with Jibli in the days before the operation nor had he authorized it, Lavon added, “Either you [acted] of your own accord from July 2 and did the whole thing, or [it was done] not of your own accord – and if so, whose?”
The episode began with the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was to become president of Egypt in 1956, and the British agreement to withdraw its claims over the Suez Canal and remove its 80,000 troops from Egypt.
In Israel, during the summer of 1954, that development was seen as dangerous. The commander of the army at the time, Lt. Gen. Moshe Dayan, described the plan, after it had failed, in a November 1, 1954, meeting of the IDF General Staff. “The goal was to interfere with the [British] withdrawal from the Suez by taking actions that would seem to have been done by the Egyptians and would create tension between the Egyptians and the English,” the IDF Archives memo from the meeting shows.
The plan, which Dayan opposed and which was executed while he was abroad, was to carry out terror attacks against British targets in Egypt, thereby, according to the logic of the plan, inducing Her Majesty’s army to stay.
Israel had trained several squads of Jewish Egyptians in Israel. They were to be sleeper squads, activated in the event of war. Instead, they were told, over what later turned out to be a poor connection, to attack British targets, stirring up unrest and quite possibly killing innocent civilians. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett was kept out of the loop.
The first attack was carried out on July 2 — the torching of a post office in Alexandria. On July 23, the anniversary of the rise of the generals to power in Egypt, the squads prepared to launch five simultaneous attacks. Outside a movie theater in Alexandria, one of the operatives was caught. The explosive device in Philip Natanson’s pocket had caught fire inadvertently, drawing the attention of the police.
The information in his apartment led to the arrest of hundreds of Jews and the capture of nearly the entire cell.
Of the 14 operatives, only the commander, Avri Elad, was able to escape. Yosef Carmon and Max Bineth, a Mossad agent in Egypt on a different mission, committed suicide in prison. Marcelle Ninio, the only woman among the combatants of Unit 131, tried to commit suicide several times but failed. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Moshe Marzuk and Shmuel Ezer were sentenced to death and hanged. The remainder were sentenced to life in prison.
The newly released papers include diary entries from David Ben-Gurion’s most trusted aide, Nehemia Argov, who called the decision to launch the operation “criminal” and “terrifying.”
Only on October 16 did he first speak about the affair with Israel’s first prime minister, who was then living in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the desert. “This was not a matter for the defense minister to decide upon,” Argov quoted Ben-Gurion as saying. “It is a political question, not a security one. With what permission did he [Lavon] take the right to decide and act independently in the definitively political realm?”
He continued, “By what right did he send 13 of the best and most devoted men to the slaughter? For what, and why? With no security, moral, or political justification.”
An independent commission of inquiry, headed by a Supreme Court justice and a former head of the IDF General Staff, did not definitively find Lavon to be at fault.
On February 11, though, Natan Alterman, an Israeli poet and journalist, broke the news of Israeli involvement in the operation in a 19-verse cryptic poem that was passed through the military censor’s office.
One week later, Lavon stepped down and Ben-Gurion was brought back into office.
“A crisis in defense,” Michael Bar-Zohar, in his biography of Shimon Peres, quotes Ben-Gurion as writing that night in his diary. “Lavon is assuredly going and there is no man. Suggesting I return. I was moved. I decided I had to accept the request and return to the Defense Ministry. Defense and the army come before everything.”