Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Lavon portrait

Pinchas Lavon (1904-1976) was an Israeli politician, minister, and labor leader best known for the infamous “Lavon Affair,” the scandal over a failed Israeli covert operation in Egypt in the summer of 1954 when a group of Egyptian Jews were recruited by Israeli military intelligence to plant bombs inside Egyptian, American, and British civilian targets.

The disastrous campaign was euphemistically referred to in Israel as the “Unfortunate Affair” or “The Bad Business.” Much like the notorious Dreyfus Affair in France more than half a century earlier, an innocent Jewish military officer was falsely accused and all but convicted – only this time, the Affair involved Jewish leaders in a Jewish government in a Jewish state who, seeking to protect themselves from political fallout, found a convenient fall guy in Lavon. To this day, the Affair still bears the name of an innocent man who had been made a political scapegoat.

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The Lavon Affair began in the early 1950s, when President Eisenhower adopted a more activist policy in support of Egyptian nationalism. Israel strongly opposed the U.S. turn to Egypt because it would encourage the British to withdraw from the Suez Canal, which Israel was certain would lead to a war with Egypt (as it ultimately did, in 1956). It would also significantly affect Israel’s trade by limiting its access to the canal, advance the military ambitions of Egyptian President Nassar, and perhaps most importantly, lead to a possible U.S.-Egypt arms deal, which was seen as an existential threat to Israel.

After the birth of Israel in 1948, Avraham Dar, an Israeli intelligence officer, arrived in Cairo and enlisted several Egyptian Jews and covertly trained them for clandestine operations and military tactics, including sabotage, and established Unit 131, a top-secret sleeper cell. In 1954, the cell was chosen to carry out what became known as “Operation Susannah,” the unlikely purpose of which was, in the words of Colonel Binyamin Gibli, chief of AMAN (an acronym for Agaf Ha-Modi’in, Israel’s Military Intelligence Section):

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.

Gibli – and not the Mossad – commenced the high-risk operation on July 2, 1954, with the detonation of cell bombs at a post office in Alexandria, followed by the July 14 bombing of the libraries of the U.S. Information Agency in Alexandria and Cairo and a British-owned theater. The operations, which were carefully designed to protect human life, caused no injuries or deaths.

Before the commencement of the operation, Israeli agent Avraham Seidenberg (who had Hebraicized his name to Avri Elad), replaced Dar and was sent to lay the ground for the campaign. Elad was chosen notwithstanding his mixed record; on one hand, he had played a key role in discovering methods used by wanted Nazi war criminals to escape to Arab countries – which he used in assuming the identity of a former SS officer with Nazi underground connections for Operation Susannah – and, on the other hand, he was a common thief who had not only been punished for looting Arab homes during Israel’s War of Independence, but had also stolen money from Shimon Peres’s wallet.

It was only many years later that Israel disclosed that Elad had almost certainly informed Egyptian intelligence about the imminent attacks. With the information Elad provided, Egyptian agents followed an Israeli operative, Philip Nathanson, to his next intended target at the Rio Theatre, where he was arrested after his bomb accidentally ignited prematurely in his pocket. Israel then realized that it had committed two major tactical errors: first, the operatives knew each other so that when the Egyptians searched Nathanson’s apartment, they found the names of the entire cell and arrested all of them and, second, none had been prepared by their handlers for the possibility of capture.

Elad and Dar managed to escape, but Max Binett committed suicide when he was arrested and Yosef Carmon, an Egyptian Jew, killed himself in prison. After the Egyptian show trial of the “Zionist spies” held from December 11, 1954, through January 27, 1955, Moshe Marzouk, a Karaite Jew and a physician, and Shmuel Azar, an engineer, were condemned to death by hanging, two others were acquitted, and the remaining eight received lengthy prison terms. The Egyptians extracted evidence from the accused through brutal torture which, at one point, almost led to the death of the lone female operative, Marcelle Ninio, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the longest sentence for a female political prisoner in Egyptian history. The brutal treatment of all the operatives continued through their incarceration.

During the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Israel captured General Fuad el Digwi, the presiding judge in the trial of the Operation Susannah operatives, who confessed that the guilty verdicts had been pre-ordained by high Egyptian authorities. Nonetheless, Israel did not publicly concede that the executed agents had died in the service of Israel and Israel’s military authorities continued to exercise strict military censorship over the proceedings.

The show trials and executions played a fundamental role in the 1956 Israel-Egypt War. Ben Gurion used the broad public demand in Israel for a retaliatory action against Egypt to launch a February 28, 1955, attack on Gaza in which 39 Egyptians were killed and Israel suffered no casualties. An embarrassed Nasser, realizing that he needed to increase his military capabilities, turned to the Soviet Union, which angered the Americans and the British, who punished Egypt by withdrawing their support for the construction of the Aswan Dam. Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal and closing British bases in the Canal Zone and, as they say, the rest is history.

Soon after Operation Susannah went bust, Mossad Chief Isser Harel suspected that the operation had been compromised by Israel’s military intelligence in AMAN and, in particular, he questioned Elad’s integrity. He was proven correct two years later in 1956 when Elad was caught red-handed trying to sell Israeli documents to the Egyptians. Throughout the Affair and continuing through his ten-year sentence in Ayalon Prison, the media were only able to refer to Elad as “the Third Man” or “Mr. X” because his identity was censored by Israel’s military authorities.

The dismal failure of Operation Susannah was a blow to Israel’s leaders, none of whom were prepared to accept responsibility for activating the cell; failure has no fathers, and the finger-pointing commenced in earnest. Lavon was blamed by his political enemies, including particularly Ben Gurion, Gibli, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, of having approved the disastrous operation. However, in meetings with Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, Lavon denied any knowledge of the campaign and tried to fix the blame on Gibli and Peres, then secretary general of the Defense Ministry.

In response, Sharett commissioned a board of inquiry in January 1955 consisting of Israeli Supreme Court Justice Yitzchak Olshan and Yaakov Dori, the first IDF chief of staff. When they ultimately proved unable to find conclusive evidence that Lavon had authorized Operation Susannah, Sharett nevertheless adopted an anti-Lavon position; Lavon was forced to resign on February 17, 1955 and was succeeded by Ben Gurion, who came out of retirement to take the position.

In this historic February 23, 1955, correspondence to PM Sharett only a week after he replaced Lavon, Ben Gurion – who, as discussed, was passionately anti-Lavon – criticized Olshan’s and Dori’s inability to “reach the point of deep understanding” regarding Lavon’s guilt:

Ben Gurion’s letter to Sharett regarding the Lavon Affair.

I recognize and appreciate very much the personalities of Olshan and Dori, and because they did not reach the point of deep understanding, I decided not to deal anymore with this subject. As to Pinchas Lavon, I continue to disregard him as merely a friend to a friend. Regarding the senior officer, I saw the need to be very strict because of the element of doubt [that he had acted correctly]. Because he was an officer in an organization that demands strict faithfulness [i.e., Israeli military intelligence] I decided to transfer him to another position. I discussed this with the Chief of Staff.

Although all agree that Sharett, who had strongly denied Israel’s involvement in Operation Susannah, had no advance knowledge of the operation, he resigned on November 3, 1955, and was replaced by Ben Gurion, who became prime minister for the second time and continued to serve also as defense minister.

In 1960, a ministerial Commission of Inquiry reviewed the record of the Olshan-Dori investigation and concluded that Elad had perjured himself and that he had submitted a forged document which he testified showed that Lavon had given the order. All of Israel’s ministers now accepted the Commission’s conclusion that Lavon had not given the order launching Operation Susannah – except for Ben Gurion, who refused Lavon’s request for public exculpation, arguing that the Commission was politically motivated and that, in any case, ministers could not serve as judges.

When Ben Gurion’s request for a judicial inquiry into the Lavon Affair was roundly rejected by Mapai, his political party, and Mapai publicly cleared Lavon, he angrily resigned from office in 1963. On July 14, 1965, he led a breakaway group of leading Mapai Knesset members and formed a new political party, Rafi (an acronym for Reshimat Poalei Yisrael, the “Israeli Workers List”).

Not surprisingly, Mapai leaders were livid about the defection of Ben Gurion and his fellow MKs and they took action to eject him from the party. Exhibited here is an intriguing historical document, the original August 2, 1965, summons issued by the Mapai High Court to Ben Gurion and the six founders of the Rafi Party:

Mapai High Court summons to Ben Gurion and his followers.

ISRAEL WORKER’S PARTY (MAPAI)
HIGH COURT
Tel Aviv, August 2, 1965

To comrades: Yosef Almoni, David Ben Gurion, Gideon Ben-Israel, Amos Degani, Hannah Lamdan, Yizhar Smilansky (S. Izhar) and Shimon Peres

You are hereby invited to attend the investigation of the Institution’s complaint against you which has been filed with the High Court.

The inquiry will be held before the High Court on Sunday, August 8, 1965 at 11:00 a.m. at the Meeting Hall of the Mapai House, 110 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv.

Enclosed is a copy of the complaint and the High Court’s Rules of Procedure.

Please sign on the coupon attached below and return to us.

With the blessings of comrades
Y. Bar-Shira
Secretary, High Court

 

Also exhibited here is the indictment sheet submitted to the High Court detailing the violations of the Party Code of Conduct by the founders of the Rafi Party and demanding their ouster from Mapai. The document bears the signature (in print) of Nachum Shadim, Secretary of Mapai’s Comptroller’s Office.

Mapai indictment sheet against Ben Gurion and other Rafi leaders.

Tel Aviv, 3 Av 1965
August 1, 1965
To: Y. Bar-Shira
Secretary, High Court

On behalf of the Secretariat of the Institute-Audit and in reliance upon clause 1 of chapter 13 of the party constitution by Yosef Almoni, David Ben Gurion, Gideon Ben-Israel, Amos Degani, Hannah Lamdan, Yizhar Smilansky (S. Izhar) and Shimon Peres

1. I hereby accuse these Comrades with the following charges:

(a) The [ ] is under the authority of the Party (chap. 13, sect. 3)

These comrades decided to appear in a separate list in this year’s general election in opposition to the opinions of the Party. They also notified the Chairman of Finance in writing that they are abandoning our faction in Knesset and declaring themselves an independent faction.

(b) Membership in another party while simultaneously serving as a member of the Mapai Party (chapter 13, section 3)

These comrades formed a partisan body in the name of the Mapai List, in short Rafi, and they operate it within the Party in their separate appearance in the Histadrut elections, to the local authorities for the Sixth Knesset while at the same time claiming their membership in our party.

2. It is requested that after recognizing the correctness and the truth of the charges described above, the Honorable Court oust the comrades listed above from the Party.

3. I hereby bring to the attention of the Honorable Court the decision of the Party Secretariat from July 11, 1965 according to which each Party comrade who participated in the appearance of a separate list in the election be removed from the Party list.

Although it hoped to replace the Labor Alignment as the leading left-wing party in Knesset, Rafi won a disappointing 10 seats in the 1965 elections in which Levi Eshkol was elected prime minister. It ceased to exist as an independent entity three years later when Peres, who served as its secretary general, merged Rafi with Mapai to form Israel’s Labor Party.

 

Original November 24, 1971 newspaper photo of the November 24, 1971 wedding of Marcelle Ninio, the lone female operative in Operation Susannah. Ninio was “givenaway” by Prime Minister Golda Meir and the wedding, which generated great joy throughout Israel, was officiated by Rav Shlomo Goren.

 

After serving a seven-year sentence in an Egyptian prison for their participation in Operation Susannah, Meir Meyuhas and Meir Za’afran were released in 1962, but Israel continued to shroud anything relating to the entire matter. The remaining Jewish prisoners were freed in February 1968 in a secret addendum to a prisoner-of-war exchange in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Soon after the Operation Susannah fiasco, Elad settled overseas, but he was ordered back to Israel, where he was arrested, tried before a secret tribunal in 1959, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for having illegal contact with Egyptian intelligence (but not for being a double agent). He served two more years in Ministry of Defense administrative detention before being permitted to emigrate to Los Angeles. In 1976, he publicly identified himself as the “Third Man” but, to his dying day, he continued to insist on his innocence.

When, in March 1975, the government permitted three of the agents to appear on Israel television, they created additional controversy with their claim that Israeli leaders had purposely left them to rot in prison rather than negotiate their release in the wake of the 1956 Sinai Campaign because Israel’s leaders feared facing the harsh condemnation that would have resulted when the agents disclosed the truth.

In 1980, Mossad Chief Harel publicly released evidence that Elad had indeed funneled key intelligence information to the Egyptians, which had led to the arrests of the Operation Susannah Israeli agents. In 1988, the Egyptian magazine October confirmed that Elad had been turned by Egypt and was operating as a double agent. Finally, on March 30, 2005, Israel honored the surviving operatives by giving each of them a military rank in the IDF and presenting them with a Certificate of Appreciation for their efforts on behalf of the state, thereby ending decades of official denial by Israel of its involvement in Operation Susannah.

At the end of the day, the Lavon Affair debacle turned out to be disastrous for Israel and its reverberations continue to this very day. Egypt used the trial as a pretext to punish Egyptian Jews, which culminated in 1958 when, following the Suez Crisis, it expelled 25,000 Jews; Israel lost significant standing and credibility in its relations with the United States and Britain; the tactics of the Affair led to deep-seated suspicion of Israeli intelligence methods; and the Affair shook up Israel’s political hierarchy.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.