The Lavon Affair
By David Hirst
Excerpts from his book: The Gun and the Olive Branch, 1977, 1984, Futura Publications
Editorial Note: This is published in relation to the killing of three Americans in Gaza Strip yesterday. Palestinian organizations denied any involvement. Islamic Jihad, in particular, pointed to Israel as the beneficiary. The Lavon Affair is a relevant topic to support the argument.
In July 1954 Egypt was plagued by a series of bomb outrages directed mainly against American and British property in Cairo and Alexandria. It was generally assumed that they were the work of the Moslem Brothers, then the most dangerous challenge to the still uncertain authority of Colonel (later President) Nasser and his two-year-old revolution. Nasser was negotiating with Britain over the evacuation of its giant military bases in the Suez Canal Zone, and, the Moslem Brothers, as zealous nationalists, were vigorously opposed to any Egyptian compromises.
It therefore came as a shock to world, and particularly Jewish opinion, when on 5 October the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, Zakaria Muhieddin, announced the break-up of a thirteen-man Israeli sabotage network. An ‘anti-Semitic’ frame-up was suspected.
Indignation increased when, on 11 December, the group was brought to trial. In the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett denounced the ‘wicked plot hatched in Alexandria … the show trial which is being organized there against a group of Jews who have fallen victims to false accusations and from who mit seems attempts are being made to extract confessions of imaginary crimes, by threats and torture . . .’49 The trade union newspaper Davar observed that the Egyptian regime ‘seems to take its inspiration from the Nazis’ and lamented the ‘deterioration in the status of Egyptian Jews in general’.50 For Haaretz the trial ‘proved that the Egyptian rulers do not hesitate to invent the most fantastic accusations if it suits them’; it added that ‘in the present state of affairs in Egypt the junta certainly needs some diversions’.51 And the next day the .7erusalem Post carried this headline: ‘Egypt Show Trial Arouses Israel, Sharett Tells House. Sees Inquisition Practices Revived.’
The trial established that the bombings had indeed been carried out by an Israeli espionage and terrorist network. This was headed by Colonel Avraharn Dar —alias John Darling— and a core of professionals who had set themselves up in Egypt under various guises. They had recruited a number of Egyptian Jews; one of them was a young woman, Marcelle Ninio, who worked in the offices of a British company. Naturally, the eventual exposure of such an organization was not going to improve the lot of the vast majority of Egyptian Jews who wanted no-thing to do with Zionism. There were still at least 50,000 Jews in Egypt; there had been something over 60,000 in 1947, more than half of whom were actually foreign nationals. During the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the populace had some times vented its frustration against them, and some were killed in mob violence or by terrorist bombs. In spite of this, and of the revolutionary upheaval which followed four years later, few Jews-including the foreign nationals-left the country, and fewer still went to Israel. A Jewish journalist insisted: ‘We, Egyptian Jews, feel secure in our homeland, Egypt.’52
The welfare of Oriental Jewry in their various homelands was, as we have seen, Israel’s last concern. And in July 1954 it had other worries. It was feeling isolated and insecure. Its Western friends-let alone the rest of the world-were unhappy about its aggressive behaviour. The US Assistant Secretary of State advised it to ‘drop the attitude of the conqueror’.53 More alarming was the rapprochement under way between Egypt, on the one hand, and the United States and Britain on the other. President Eisenhower had urged Britain to give up her giant military base in the Suez Canal Zone; Bengurion had failed to dissuade her. It was to sabotage this rapprochement that the head of Israeli intelligence, Colonel Benyamin Givli, ordered his Egyptian intelligence ring to strike.
Givli’s boss, Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon, and the Prime Minister, Moshe Sharett, knew nothing of the operation. For Givli was a member of a powerful Defence Ministry clique which often acted independently, or in outright defiance, of the cabinet. They were proteges of Bengurion and, although ‘The Old Man’ had left the Premiership for Sde Boker, his Negev desert retreat, a few months before, he was able, through them, to perpetuate the hardline ‘activist’ policies in which he believed. On Givli’s instructions, the Egyptian network was to plant bombs in American and British cultural centres, British-owned cinemas and Egyptian public buildings. The Western powers, it was hoped, would conclude that there was fierce internal opposition to the rapprochement and that Nasser’s young r6gime,faced with this challenge, was not one in which they could place much confidence.54 Mysterious violence might therefore persuade both London and Washington that British troops should remain astride the Canal; the world had not forgotten Black Saturday, 28 January 1951, in the last year of King Farouk’s reign, when mobs rampaged through downtown Cairo, setting fire to foreign-owned hotels and shops, in which scores of people, including thirteen Britons, died.
The first bomb went off, on 2 July, in the Alexandria post office. On 11 July, the Anglo-Egyptian Suez negotiations, which had been blocked for nine months, got under way again. The next day the Israeli embassy in London was assured that, up on the British evacuation from Suez, stock-piled arms would not be handed over to the Egyptians. But the Defence Ministry activists were unconvinced. On 14 July their agents, in clandestine radio contact with Tel Aviv, fire-bombed US Information Service libraries in Cairo and Alexandria. That same day, a phosphorous bomb exploded prematurely in the pocket of one Philip Natanson, nearly burning him alive, as he was about to enter the British-owned Rio cinema in Alexandria. His arrest and subsequent confession led to the break-up of the whole ring-but not before the completion of another cycle of clandestine action and diplomatic failure. On 15 July President Eisenhower assured the Egyptians that ‘simultaneously’ with the signing of a Suez agreement the United States would enter into ‘firm commitments’ for economic aid to strengthen their armed forces.55 On 23 July —anniversary of the 1952 revolution— the Israeli agents still at large had a final fling; they started fires in two Cairo cinemas, in the central post office and the railway station. On the same day, Britain announced that the War Secretary, Antony Head, was going to Cairo. And on 27 July he and the Egyptians initiated the ‘Heads of Agreement’ on the terms of Britain’s evacuation.
The trial lasted from 11 December to 3 January. Not all the culprits were there, because Colonel Dar and an Israeli colleague managed to escape, and the third Israeli, Hungarian-born Max Bennett, committed suicide; but those who were present all pleaded guilty. Most of them, including Marcelle Ninio, were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. But Dr Musa Lieto Marzuk, a Tunisian-born citizen of France who was a surgeon at the Jewish Hospital in Cairo, and Samuel Azar, an engineering professor from Alexandria, were condemned to death. In spite of representations from France, Britain and the United States the two men were hanged. Politically, it would have been very difficult for Nasser to spare them, for only seven weeks before six Moslem Brothers had been executed for complicity in an attempt on his life. Nevertheless Israel reacted with grief and anger. So did some Western Jews. Marzuk and Azar ‘died the death of martyrs’, said Sharett on the same day in the Knesset, whose members stood in silent tribute. Israel went into official mourning the following day. Beersheba and Ramat Gan named streets after the executed men. Israeli delegates to the Egyptian-Israeli Mixed Armistice Commission refused to attend its meeting, declaring that they would not sit down with representatives of the Cairo junta. In New York there were bomb threats against the Egyptian consulate and a sniper fired four shots into its fourth-floor window.56
This whole episode, which was to poison Israeli political life for a decade and more, came to be known as the ‘Lavon Affair’, for it had been established in the Cairo trial that Lavon, as Minister of Defence, had approved the campaign of sabotage. At least so the available evidence made it appear. But in Israel, Lavon had asked Moshe Sharett for a secret inquiry into a matter about which the cabinet knew nothing. Benyamin Givli, the intelligence chief, claimed that the so-called ‘security operation’ had been authorized by Lavon himself. Two other Bengurion proteges, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, testified against Lavon. Lavon denounced Givli’s papers as forgeries and demanded the resignation of all three men. Instead, Sharett ordered Lavon himself to resign and invited Bengurion to come out of retirement and take over the Defence Ministry. It was a triumphant comeback for the ‘activist’ philosophy whose excesses both Sharett and Lavon had tried to modify. It was con-summated, a week later, by an unprovoked raid on Gaza, which left thirty-nine Egyptians dead and led to the Suez War Of 1956.57
When the truth about the Lavon Affair came to light, six years after the event, it confirmed that there had been a frame-up-not, however, by the Egyptians, but by Bengurion and his young proteges. Exposure was fortuitous. Giving evidence in a forgery trial in September 1960, a witness divulged on passant that he had seen the faked signature of Lavon on a document relating to a 1954 ‘security mishap’.58 Bengurion immediately announced that the three-year statute of limitations prohibited the opening of the case. But Lavon, now head of the powerful Histradut Trade Union Federation, seized upon this opportunity to demand an inquiry. Bengurion did everything in his power to stop it, but his cabinet overruled him. The investigation revealed that the security operation’ had been planned behind Lavon’s back. His signature had been forged, and the bombing had actually begun long before his approval —which he withheld— had been sought. He was a scapegoat pure and simple. On Christmas Day 1960,the Israeli cabinet unanimously exonerated him of all guilt in the ‘disastrous security adventure in Egypt’; the Attorney General had, in the meantime, found ‘conclusive evidence of forgeries as well as false testimony in an earlier inquiry’.59 Bengurion was enraged. He issued an ultimatum to the ruling Labour party to remove Lavon, stormed out of a cabinet meeting and resigned. In what one trade unionist described as ‘an immoral and unjust submission to dictatorship’, his diehard supporters in the Histradut swung the vote in favour i)f accepting Lavon’s resignation. Lavon, however, won a moral victory over the man who twice forced him from office. In the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, students demonstrated in his favour. They carried placards reading: ‘Bengurion Go to Sde Boker, Take Dayan and Peres with You. We do Not Accept Leaders with Elastic Consciences.’60 The affair rocked the ruling establishment, split public opinion, forced new elections and contributed largely to Bengurion’s eventual disappearance from public life.
But Lavon was not the only real victim. There were also those misguided Egyptian Jews who paid with their lives or long terms of imprisonment. It is true that when, in 1968, Marcelle Ninio and her colleagues were exchanged for Egyptian’ prisoners in Israel, they received a heroes’ welcome. True, too, that when Miss Ninio got married Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defence Minister Dayan and Chief of Staff General Bar Lev all attended the wedding and Dayan told the bride ‘the Six-Day War was success enough that it led to your freedom’.61 However, after spending fourteen years in an Egyptian prison, the former terrorists did not share the leadership’s enthusiasm. When Ninio and two of her colleagues appeared on Israel television a few years later, they all expressed the belief that the reason why they were not released earlier was because Israel made little effort to get them out. ‘Maybe they didn’t want us to come back,’ said Robert Dassa. ‘There was so much intrigue in Israel. We were instruments in the hands of the Egyptians and of others … and what is more painful after all that we went through is that this continues to be so.’ In Ninio’s opinion, ‘the government didn’t want to spoil its relations with the United States and didn’t want the embarrassment of admitting it was behind our action’.62
But the real victims were the great mass of Egyptian Jewry. Episodes like the Lavon Affair tended to identify them, in the mind of ordinary Egyptians, with the Zionist movement. When, in 1956, Israeli invaded and occupied Sinai, feeling ran high against them. The government, playing into the Zionist hands, began ordering Jews to leave the country. Belatedly, reluctantly, 21,000 left in the following year; more were expelled later, and others, their livelihood gone, had nothing to stay for. But precious few went to Israel.