Peres and Arafat's Altalena
During the past week, much was made over the comparison the prime minister drew between the present situation and the policy of appeasement practiced at Munich in 1938. However, little attention was paid when official sources were quoted as drawing an analogy between Arafat's relations with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad and Ben-Gurion's order to sink the Altalena, a ship bringing arms and volunteers to Israel's War of Independence in July 1948.
During the past week, much was made over the comparison the prime minister drew between the present situation and the policy of appeasement practiced at Munich in 1938. However, little attention was paid when official sources were quoted as drawing an analogy between Arafat's relations with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad and Ben-Gurion's order to sink the Altalena, a ship bringing arms and volunteers to Israel's War of Independence in July 1948. "Arafat has not yet had his Altalena," these sources were reported as saying. And a number of journalists, with little knowledge of the tragic events that led to the destruction of the ship on the Tel Aviv shore by IDF fire on Ben-Gurion's orders, repeated the refrain.
History never repeats itself, and historical analogies will inevitably bring forth criticism. But while Sharon's remarks echoed the memory, engraved in the consciousness of all Jews, of the period when attempts were made to appease the Germans and the Jewish people were abandoned to their fate, the Altalena analogy is part of a continuing effort to distort history by the false claim that Ben-Gurion in June 1948 suppressed an attempt by Menahem Begin to stage an armed revolt against the government of Israel. The attempt to draw a parallel between Ben-Gurion and Arafat and Begin and Sheikh Yassin borders on the obscene. But worse yet is the attempt to falsify the events of those days and turn a partisan fictionalized account into the accepted version of history.
What really happened on June 22, 1948 opposite the Tel Aviv shore is backed by incontrovertible evidence. Months earlier, supporters of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) in the United States had purchased a surplus U.S. Navy landing craft, renamed the Altalena, while with the help of French government officials, a large stock of weapons and ammunition had been assembled in France and loaded onto the ship at a port near Marseille. Nine hundred and forty young men and women, survivors of the Holocaust from the displaced person camps in Europe, as well as volunteers from the United States, Cuba and western Europe, all eager to participate in the War of Independence, boarded the ship there. There is no doubt that the ship's cargo of weapons and volunteers had the potential to make a significant contribution to the bitter struggle Israel was waging at the time against the Arab invading armies.
Almost three weeks earlier, on June 3, an agreement had been concluded between Yisrael Galili, Ben-Gurion's deputy at the Ministry of Defense, and Menahem Begin for the integration of IZL units into the IDF. The agreement had been promptly executed so that with the exception of Jerusalem, where the Israeli government had not at the time claimed sovereignty, the IZL had ceased to exist. Begin notified Galili of the impending arrival of the Altalena and was instructed by him on June 15 to have the ship land at Kfar Vitkin. When the ship arrived at Kfar Vitkin and unloading began, it became clear that Begin had been led into a trap. The landing area was surrounded by armed soldiers and the debarking passengers were placed under arrest. Fearing the worst, Begin, who had boarded the ship, ordered it to proceed to Tel Aviv hoping that within sight of the people of that city, Ben-Gurion would hesitate to take any military action against the ship. He was to be disappointed. Ben-Gurion ordered IDF artillery on shore to open fire on the Altalena. The ship loaded with munition was in danger of exploding with the loss of all on board, including Begin. It was only the skillful maneuvering of the ship by the skipper, Monroe Fine, a former U.S. naval officer who had served in the Pacific during Wold War II and was expected to enlist in the Israeli Navy, that permitted the men on board to abandon ship and to attempt to swim to shore. They were fired on while in the water. Sixteen of the men were killed. Fourteen were Holocaust survivors and two were Jewish volunteers from Cuba. Begin's instruction not to return the fire averted an even greater disaster.
In disregard of the urgent need at the time for the weapons and reinforcement that the Altalena was bringing to Israel, Ben-Gurion, using the pretext that he was quelling a revolt, had attempted to liquidate his political opponents. His bitter hatred for Begin continued undisguised for years thereafter, when he refused to speak to him or even to refer to him by name during Knesset debates.
It is a tragic chapter in Israel's history. It should be remembered as it happened and not in a perverted version. Associating it with Arafat's current predicament is unexcusable.