The conversation between Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon and Military Intelligence chief Binyamin Gibli on December 28, 1954, was extremely tense. “I wanted to give you another chance to tell me the whole truth,” Lavon told the senior Israel Defense Forces officer sharply. “Don’t hide anything, neither person nor issue. Unfortunately, either you didn’t understand or you decided not to understand.”
“I can’t believe you, Mr. Minister. I’m very sorry,” Gibli answered.
The issue about which they were talking – “the rotten business” (esek habish), also known as the Lavon Affair – was a scandal that occupied the country for several years, caused considerable political turmoil, and can still make headlines more than 60 years on.
Code-named Operation Susannah by Military Intelligence, it involved a Jewish terror cell in Egypt that was meant to undermine Cairo’s relations with the United States and Britain. The cell, whose members were arrested in the summer of 1954, had planned to plant bombs in movie houses, a post office, and U.S. institutions in Cairo and Alexandria, making it look as if the bombs were the work of Egyptians. Then-Prime Minister Moshe Sharett apparently had no advance knowledge of the operation.
This morning, the IDF and Defense Establishment Archives (IDFA) is declassifying several documents that shed additional light on the affair: the report of an IDF General Staff meeting; excerpts from a diary kept by David Ben-Gurion’s military secretary; a report on events by Mordechai Ben Tzur, commander of Unit 131 that operated the cell in Egypt; and the transcript of the highly charged meeting between Lavon and Gibli.
The results of the Lavon Affair were brutal. Two operatives, Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, were hanged by the Egyptians; other operatives, including a woman, Marcelle Ninio, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Another intelligence officer, Meir “Max” Bineth, committed suicide in an Egyptian jail. Avri Elad, the cell’s commander – who was suspected of betraying the agents to the Egyptians – managed to flee Egypt, but was later tried for another incident of espionage and imprisoned for 10 years. There were numerous resignations among senior Israeli officials.
The Lavon-Gibli conversation focuses on who gave the order to launch the Egyptian operation. Lavon accused Gibli of dumping the responsibility for it on him, after Gibli told the General Staff two months earlier that Lavon had given the order to operate the cell.
“I want to tell you straight out the whole affair as it has been portrayed is full of – if I may use very parliamentary language – is full of incorrect things that distort the matter from A to Z,” Lavon told Gibli. “The whole story the way you’ve told it to me is a fabrication.
“I wanted to give you another opportunity to tell me the whole truth; instead, you’ve given me a childish response you are constantly claiming that we share the responsibility. If we share the responsibility and are doing something together that isn’t exactly having tea and cake, and you get a report like this, you don’t tell your partner this immediately?” asked Lavon, referring to the news of the arrests in Egypt.
“It’s unacceptable that without an order from an authorized person – and I’m not saying you’re the one who gave the order – but without an order from an authorized person who had the authority to give it, that people should carry out operations like this on their own,” added Lavon. “Someone gave this order, and I don’t believe that, simply out of a sense of adventure, these people decided to blow up U.S. intelligence services and torch the post office in Alexandria. It’s not possible,” said Lavon.
When Gibli responded that he did not believe Lavon’s claims that he, Lavon, hadn’t ordered the operation, Lavon responded, “I’m not asking you to believe me believe me or don’t believe me, I’m informing you that the issue is proven.”
Gibli insisted that Lavon had indeed given the order, saying, “To me, one thing is clear. From your mouth, after the meeting in your house, I received the order to activate the cells give me a minute, Mr. Minister. The order for the operation was in your house, in the presence of just the two of us.”
Lavon responded, “Binyamin, please. I will let you say what you want, but I suggest you don’t get ensnared. I ask you not to get entangled.”
“It could be that I’m already entangled,” responded Gibli.
“To get more entangled,” said Lavon.
“There’s no death by hanging in Israel,” answered Gibli. Within a few months of this conversation, both had been replaced in their positions.
Another document being released reveals excerpts from the diary of Nehemiah Argov, Ben-Gurion’s military secretary, written on October 18, 1954 – a year before Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) returned to the premiership.
“We set up a unit that could have been a terror unit and a commando unit behind enemy lines, in the deepest heart of enemy [territory], and who knows what crucial and decisive missions those guys could have fulfilled during an emergency,” wrote Argov.
Argov blamed Lavon for the affair, saying he had made a crucial error in activating the cell to “attack some British objectives, to create the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood [was responsible].” Argov called it “a sinful and incorrect decision by the defense minister It was not the defense minister’s business to decide this. This was a political question, not a security one.”
While an inquiry headed by Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Olshan and Yaakov Dori, Israel’s first chief of staff, could not determine conclusively “who gave the order,” later inquiries discovered perjury and forgeries in the earlier evidence and cleared Lavon of responsibility.