Yes, Investigate

We must apply the lessons of the fifty-year old Lavon Affair: There can be no cover-ups, because they corrode the government.

The Lavon affair happened before I was born. I learned about it from books, the best of which was "Ben-Gurion's Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal That Shaped Modern Israel," Shabtai Teveth's volume on the subject. There is no better source for understanding Israeli politics, and it reads like a gripping thriller: a spy scandal, sex at the top, plots in the secret service, political intrigues and media manipulation. It contains an important lesson for journalists from the author, who was a master of the craft: We never know everything, and behind every story we publish lies a deeper and more riveting yarn.

This week I had another look at Teveth's book, in an effort to decode the Galant affair, which is threatening to unravel the leadership of the defense establishment. The background and the time are different, but the suspicions are similar; in both cases, officers forged documents in order to trip up, and ultimately topple, the defense minister. Benyamin Givly and his subordinates in Military Intelligence in the 1950s brought about the removal of then-defense minister Pinhas Lavon, after framing him as the one responsible for espionage and sabotage operations in Egypt that ended with the capture of the Israeli spy network there. Five years later, when Lavon learned of the fabrication of the evidence against him, he fought to clear his name. The ruling party was torn from within, Lavon was removed from the leadership of the Histadrut labor federation, and on his way down he took with him David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state.

Yitzhak Berez

Why did Ben-Gurion fall? That's what Teveth asks, and his answer is: because he avoided investigating the suspicions of forgeries in Military Intelligence after he succeeded Lavon at the Defense Ministry. He knew of the incriminating information, but he gave in to the pressures of the military leadership and left the matter alone. Not investigating bought him quiet in the short term, but it worked like a germ that poisoned the government system from within, until it collapsed on its founder. Ben-Gurion refused to taint his beloved IDF with suspicions of unethical acts, and he paid the price; he lost his hold on power and his party, Mapai, was shattered.

The lesson of the Lavon affair is clear: There can be no cover-ups and investigations must be held, because cover-ups corrode the government. But the lesson was not learned. The natural tendency of chiefs of staffs and politicians is to ignore unpleasant suspicions and act out of political expedience, in the hope that the poison will dissipate on its own. No one wants to touch a hot document that could burn his fingers.

It's easy to justify oneself with pointless slogans like "Let the IDF win wars," "Don't march officers off to interrogation rooms" or "The army will be paralyzed if every officer takes a lawyer." That's demagoguery. The army will fall apart if it is devoured from within by suspicions and rumors, not if the truth is uncovered. That's exactly what happened in the air force in the case of retired general Rami Dotan, who enjoyed the backing and support of his commanders until the evidence that he was embezzling money became strong enough to overcome their opposition to an investigation and led to Dotan's arrest and imprisonment.

If the current suspicions are true, the Galant document was the product of an internal conspiracy either within the army or just outside it, and was forged by senior reserve officers to frame Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant and associate them with the use of public relations consultants and political and media manipulation as a way of getting Galant appointed chief of staff. The scheme almost succeeded. After the document was leaked to Channel 2, the impression was created that people close to Barak were involved in an underhanded manipulation to glorify Galant and taint army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and his deputy, Benny Gantz. Now the wind has changed and Barak and Galant appear to be the victims, while Ashkenazi looks like a con artist.

Like Ben-Gurion in his time, Ashkenazi also failed to investigate when the document reached him. And if he told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about it, then Netanyahu showed a lack of leadership. If Netanyahu knew that the chief of staff and defense minister were at odds to the point that they weren't speaking to each other, how did he travel abroad and leave the two rivals to handle the Turkish flotilla? Did he not understand that such a top-level rift in the defense establishment was a recipe for disaster at the critical moment?

If the case had been investigated promptly - Ashkenazi has had the document since April - the pus would have oozed out long before the flotilla raid, and Netanyahu and Barak could have brought order to the army's top brass. The failure of not investigating has shattered the authority of the leaders of the state and the army, tainted their image, and undermined the ethics, responsibility and sense of comradeship in the IDF. Just the way it happened to their predecessors in the Lavon affair.