The Lavon Affair: Terrorism to Coerce the West

Livia Rokach – Israel’s sacred terrorism

CHAPTER 7 The Lavon Affair: Terrorism to Coerce the West

ONE: Start immediate action to prevent or postpone Anglo-Egyptian Agreement. Objectives are: one, cultural and information centers; two, economic institutions; three, cars of British representatives and other Britons; four, whichever target whose sabotage could bring about a worsening of diplomatic relations. TWO. Inform us on possibilities of action in Canal Zone. THREE. Listen to us every day at 7 o’clock on wavelength G.


This coded cable was sent to the Israeli spy ring which had been planted in Egypt many months before it was activated in July 1954. The ring originally was to serve as a fifth column during the next war. The cable was preceded by oral instructions given by Colonel Benjamin Givii, head of Israel’s military intelligence, to an officer headed for Cairo to join the ring. These instructions were:


[Our goal is] to break the West’s confidence in the existing [Egyptian] regime …. The actions should cause arrests, demonstrations, and expressions of revenge. The Israeli origin should be totally covered while attention should be shifted to any other possible factor. The purpose is to prevent economic and military aid from the West to Egypt. The choice of the precise objectives to be sabotaged will be left to the men on the spot, who should evaluate the possible consequences of each action … in terms of creating commotion and public disorders.13


These orders were carried out between July 2 and July 27, 1954, by the network which was composed of about ten Egyptian Jews under the command of Israeli agents. Negotiations were at their height between Cairo and London for the evacuation of the Canal Zone, and between Cairo and Washington for arms supplies and other aid in connection with a possible U.S.-Egyptian alliance. British and American cultural and informational centers, British-owned cinemas, but also Egyptian public buildings (such as post offices) were bombed in Cairo and Alexandria. Suspicion was shifted to the Muslim Brothers, opponents of Nasser’s regime. The Israeli ring was finally discovered and broken up on July 27, when one of its members was caught after a bomb exploded in his pocket in Alexandria.


On that same date Sharett, who knew nothing about the ring, was informed of the facts, and he began to collect evidence on the responsibilities of defense ministry and army officials. He did nothing beyond this, however, until October 5, when Cairo officially announced the imminent trial of the arrested saboteurs. Sharett then fully supported the campaign launched by Israel to present the case as an anti-Jewish frame-up by the Egyptian regime. On December 13, two days after the trial opened in Cairo, the prime minister denounced in the Knesset “the plot … and the show trial . . . against a group of Jews . . . victims of false accusations.”* His party’s paper, Davar, went as far as to accuse the Egyptian government of “a Nazi-inspired policy.” Horror stories of confessions extracted from the accused under torture circulated in the Israeli and international media. Sharett knew all this to be untrue. “In reality,” he wrote in his diary on January 2, 1955, “except for the first two days of their arrest, when there was some beating, the treatment of our men was absolutely decent and humane.” But publicly, he kept silent did not himself join the massive anti-Nasser chorus. Even the members of the cabinet, the president of the state, not to speak of the press, were not officially informed until some time in February, when rumors exploded on each street corner in Israel. Then the true story came out, that the government propaganda had been false from beginning to end, that the terrorist ring was indeed planted in Egypt by the Israelis and the only frame-up in question was the one invented against Egypt by the Sharett administration.


By the time the trial was over-two of the accused were condemned to death and executed, eight were condemned to long terms of imprisonment, while the three Israeli commanders of the operation succeeded in fleeing from Egypt and the fourth committed suicide other important facts became known to the prime minister. The technical question of who actually gave the order to activate the ring on a certain date was not to be cleared up until six years later, when a fourth or fifth inquiry commission finally and definitely exonerated Lavon from that responsibility, and established that Dayan, Peres, Givli and other, minor, “security” aides had forged documents and falsified testimonies in order to bring about the incrimination of the minister of defense. In 1954-55, Sharett anticipated the findings of that commission, figuring that the entire leadership of the security establishment was guilty of the affair. For him, the question of who gave the order was secondary to the necessity of pronouncing a judgment on the ideology and politics of lsrael’s terrorism. Therefore, while he had no doubts about the guilt of the Dayan-Peres-Givli clique, to him Lavon’s political responsibility was also inescapable.


[People] ask me if I am convinced that “he gave the order?’ . . . but let us assume that Givli has acted without instructions … doesn’t the moral responsibility lie all the same on Lavon, who has constantly preached for acts of madness and taught the army leadership the diabolic lesson of how to set the Middle East on fire, how to cause friction, cause bloody confrontations, sabotage targets and property of the Powers [and perform] acts of despair and suicide” (10, January 1955, 639)


At this point, Sharett could have changed the history of the Middle East. Had he spoken frankly and directly to public opinion, which was deeply troubled by the events in Egypt the arrests, the trial, the executions, the contradicting rumors, the climate of intrigue surrounding the “Affair,” tearing up the mask of secrecy, denouncing those who were responsible, exposing his true convictions in regard to Israel’s terroristic ideologies and orientations, proposing an alternative, he could have created for himself the conditions in which to use the formal powers that he possessed to make a radical housecleaning in the security establishment. The impact of such an act would have probably been considerable not only in Israel itself but also in the Arab world, especially in Egypt. The downfall of Lavon on one hand and of the Ben Gurionist gang, headed by Dayan and Peres, on the other hand might have blocked Ben Gurion’s return to power, and in the longer range, the Sinai-Suez war. Events since then would have taken a different course. (14)


As it was, though, the prime minister had neither the courage nor the temperament required for such an action. Moreover, he always feared that his “moderate” convictions would expose him to accusations of defeatism by the activists of aggressive Zionism. Thus, he took cover behind a variety of pretexts aimed at justifying his passivity even to himself, while in his heart he knew that his objective compliance with the rules of the game imposed by his enemies would boomerang, in the end, against his own career. An open admission of the facts, he tormentedly argued, could be damaging to the people on trial in Cairo; or it could damage lsrael’s image in the world; or it could bring about a split in the Mapai party, to whose leadership Lavon and Ben Gurion as well as he belonged, causing it to lose its majority in the next elections. Inevitably, he ended up entangled in the plots woven around him by the opposing factions in the government, the army and the party. By mid-February, he had no other choice but to acquiesce to the unspoken ultimatum of Ben Gurion’s men and appeal to the Old Man to reenter the cabinet as minister of defense in Lavon’s place.


By January 1955, Sharett was well aware that the “Affair” was being used by Lavon and his friends on one hand, the Ben Gurionists on the other, and such extremist pro-militarist factions as Ahdut Ha’avoda 15-to bring into the open the conflict between the “activist” line and the prime minister’s “moderate” politics. He was informed also that Dayan was attempting to organize a coup d’etat and that Ben Gurion had given it his support. Other persons who had been approached (mainly from among Mapai’s younger militants) had rejected the idea of a change of leadership through violence. 16 Dayan wanted to avoid at any cost being exposed by the investigation committee nominated by Sharett as one of those actually responsible for the “Affair.” Lavon, on the other hand, threatened to commit suicide if the commission declared him guilty of having given the order.


Teddy [Kollek] painted a horrifying picture of the relations at the top of the security establishment. The Minister of Defense is completely isolated none of his collaborators speaks to him. During the inquiry, these collaborators [e.g., Peres, Dayan and a number of senior Ministry officials and army officers] plotted to blacken his name and trap him. They captured the man who came from abroad, [the commander of the unit in Egypt Avraham Zeidenberg, also known as “Paul Frank,” “Flad,” or “the third man”] who escaped from Egypt…….. instructed him in detail how to answer, including how to lie to the investigators, and coordinated the testimonies so as to close the trap on Lavon. Teddy is convinced that Lavon must go immediately. Givli, too, must be dismissed, but Dayan, however, should not be touched for the time being, (9 ,January 1954, 637)


I would never have imagined that we could reach such a horrible state of poisoned relations, the unleashing of the basest instincts of hate and revenge and mutual deceit at the top of our most glorious Ministry [of Defense].

I walk around as a lunatic, horror-stricken and lost, completely helpless . .. . what should I do? What should I do? (10 January 1954, 639)

Isser [Harel, head of the Shin Bet, stung at the time because the “Affair” had been conducted by the military intelligence, without coordination with his organization] told me hair-raising stories about a conversation which Givli initiated with him proposing to abduct Egyptians not only from the Gaza Strip but also in Cyprus and Europe. He also proposed a crazy plan to blow up the Egyptian Embassy in Amman in case of death sentences in the Cairo trial. (14 January 1955, 654)


To Aharon Barkatt, then secretary general of Mapai, Sharett painted the following picture of Israel’s security establishment:

Dayan was ready to hijack planes and kidnap [Arab] officers from trains, but he was shocked by Lavon’s suggestion about the Gaza Strip. Maklef [who preceded Dayan as Chief of Staff] demanded a free hand to murder Shishakly but he was shaken when Lavon gave him a crazy order concerning the Syrian DMZ. (25 January 1955, 682)


He [Lavon] inspired and cultivated the negative adventuristic trend in the army and preached the doctrine that not the Arab countries but the Western Powers are the enemy, and the only way to deter them from their plots is through direct actions that will terrorize them. (26 January 1955, 685)

Peres shares the same ideology: he wants to frighten the West into supporting Israel’s aims.

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The Lavon Affair: Terrorism to Coerce the West

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