Up to No Good

In the mid-1950s, defense minister Pinhas Lavon proposed spreading poisonous bacteria on the Syrian border and ordered the bombing of various Middle Eastern capitals. Shocking revelations from a new edition of Moshe Sharett's diaries

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

1. Political diary as cult

About six weeks after the conclusion of the Sinai Campaign, Moshe Sharett quoted in his diary something he had heard from his son, Haim: "A day or two before the campaign we blew up with our own hands a well at [Kibbutz] Nirim, so we could say that the fedayun [Arab marauders] had done it, in order to justify our response." This is being published here for the first time and would appear to have the makings of a historical sensation: this is how the second round between Israel and Egypt was engendered, in October 1956. Wrong: the Sinai Campaign was planned in protracted talks between Israel, France and Britain. About 10 days before it began, three Israeli soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit mines the Egyptians had planted in the Nitzana sector. It's doubtful, then, that a well had to be blown up, too.

It is very possible that Sharett did not know this. Because Israel's first foreign minister and second prime minister was not privy to the secret preparations for the Sinai Campaign, he had resigned from the government about four months earlier. He read about the campaign in a newspaper a few hours before meeting with the prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, in New Delhi. If Sharett had been asked for his opinion, he would have probably opposed the Sinai Campaign, and when he returned home he wrote in his diary, "My country has parted from me."

Sharett's diary is one of the most important sources for the history of Israel. It was first published in 1978 - more than a million words of statesmanship and personal frustration, always in the terrible shadow of David Ben-Gurion. The eight volumes, edited by Yaakov Sharett, the author's son, were received with astonishment and paved the way for the work of a group that was later known as the "new historians."

For a time, the diary nourished a kind of underground cult. There were people who knew whole pages by heart - one would start a sentence, his friend would complete it. People also read the diary in groups, growing addicted not only to the political revelations of the prime minister and foreign minister and to his dovish outlook, but also to the emotional intimacy of his writing, all in an inspired style rich with original verbal coinages. Nearly 30 years later, the association established to commemorate Sharett's legacy is preparing a new, abridged version of the original diary, which has long since gone out of print and cannot readily be found even in secondhand book stores.

In the introduction to Volume I, Yaakov Sharett wrote that his father's diary was being published in its entirety, "other than a few dualities and a few sentences whose internal family interest is clear-cut but trivial." To remove any doubt, the son-and-editor noted that the deletions do not contain mentions of extra-family intimate relations, and that is true. However, nearly 30 years after the diary's publication the association found a file containing hundreds of passages that were omitted prior to publication. Most of them are unimportant, but a few - such as the story about the detonation of the well at Nirim - will raise eyebrows; a few words are still banned from publication.

2. Even Dayan was shocked

A large part of what was omitted from the published diary dealt with what Sharett, as prime minister, thought of the defense minister, Pinhas Lavon; from the diary Lavon comes across as quite mad and also quite a drinker. On January 25, 1955, Sharett wrote, "Lavon proved that both his character and his mind contain satanic elements. He plotted atrocities which were averted thanks to the outrage of chiefs of staff, despite all their readiness for every act of adventurism." Moshe Dayan was ready to rob planes and abduct officers from trains, Sharett wrote, but he was appalled by what Lavon proposed doing in the Gaza Strip. "[Chief of Staff Mordechai] Makleff demanded a free hand to assassinate [Syrian ruler Colonel Adib] Shishakli, but he blanched when Lavon ordered him to spread poisonous bacteria in the Syrian demilitarized frontier zone," Sharett wrote. Yaakov Sharett was also appalled. When he edited the diary for publication, he replaced the details of Lavon's directives for Gaza and Syria with the words "an insane order."

On July 29, 1954, Sharett quoted Shimon Peres. The latter had told Golda Meir that Lavon had not made do with the order to carry out acts of terrorism in Egypt - the "bad business" that birthed the "Lavon affair" - but had also given an order "to bomb various Middle Eastern capitals," among them Baghdad, "to keep things jumping in the Middle East."

According to Sharett, Ben-Gurion realized that he had made a mistake by appointing Lavon defense minister. In a letter he sent to Sharett on October 28, 1960, Ben-Gurion wrote, "Lavon, I am told, gave an order to attack a British consulate in order to cause trouble between England and Jordan, and Moshe Dayan canceled the edict."

Lavon also planned to fire guided missiles at Nebi Samwil, outside Jerusalem, then part of Jordan. On March 11, 1956, a Paratroops unit was brought to Jerusalem and given an assignment to carry out in case the Jordanians blocked the passage of the convoy that visited Mount Scopus every two weeks as part of the 1949 Armistice Agreement. The paratroopers' assignment, according to Sharett: "To charge ahead and capture the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood [of East Jerusalem]. In the course of this, they were told that they would push ahead to the residence of the Egyptian consul-general, who lives there, and kill him." Sharett found the story "wild." He went to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion with it, but Ben-Gurion "knew nothing about it."

Under the agreement, the convoys to Mount Scopus were intended to bring civilian supplies to the policemen who were guarding the buildings of the Hebrew University. In practice, military equipment was hidden among the crates of food and the "policemen" were soldiers in disguise. Sharett reveals that an Israeli defector informed the Jordanians about the details of the camouflage. Another defector fell into the Syrians' hands. Sharett wrote: "A report was published that he is insane, in order to disavow in advance everything he will tell."

Sharett found creative people in the Foreign Ministry he headed. In a previously unpublished passage from the diary, he wrote that ministry personnel wanted the commissioner of police, Yehezkel Sahar, "to fake a tracking mission" in order to show that the footprints of saboteurs led to the Lebanon border.

On September 23, 1955, Sharett wrote, "Yehezkel is vehemently against this. There is no guarantee that the trackers will not tell the truth afterward. I said that I am completely against such a trick, first of all because it is a trick. This kind of stratagem will necessarily put an end to the very custom of tracking in order to uncover the tracks of the criminals [from across the border]." An official from the Foreign Ministry explained to Sharett that the demand to fake saboteurs' footprints had come from the army and that such "acts of deception" had also been carried out in the past.

3. Listening in on Ben-Gurion

The diary shows that Sharett maintained correct relations with Isser Harel, who at the time was the "memuneh" - the person in charge - of the security services and was engaged in power struggles with Military Intelligence. On July 23, 1956, Sharett asked Harel about the "exploding envelopes" that had caused the death of Egypt's military attaches in Gaza and Amman. This was a kind of early version of the "targeted assassinations" tactic, and Sharett probably read about it in Haaretz. Here is how he summed up Harel's response: "Operationally, it was a surprising success, but Isser has definite reservations about the method. This trick can provoke and justify reactions of personal terror which we will not be able to defend against and will cost us dear. He was not asked in advance about the use of this stratagem, and will henceforth insist that his opinion be sought. His impression is that the act was decided on from a very narrow point of view, without thought for the expected consequences, both in Israel and for the security of our representations abroad."

The Shin Bet also provided Foreign Minister Sharett with political information. Apparently he listened in on telephone conversations of politicians who spoke to Ben-Gurion. "I now have a very interesting pipeline for knowing Ben-Gurion's thoughts," Sharett wrote on November 2, 1953 - "a Shin Bet report on his conversations with Hapoel Hamizrahi [a religious political party]."

4. Politicking in Sudan

Sharett noted details about Israel's political involvement in a number of Arab states, including Sudan. On one occasion, the leader of the Al-Umma party from Sudan visited Israel and Sharett met with him, after the Sudanese official had conferred with both Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. According to Sharett, the two had shown "the enthusiasm of novices" for the visitor.

The Sudanese visitor explained to the Israelis that they and he had a common enemy: Egyptian President Nasser. Sharett: "We promised him a sum of money to purchase a printing press and that we would send someone to look into the possibility of opening a bank in Khartoum." The bank was to be affiliated with an Israeli bank in Europe. Just a few days later Sharett wrote, "I am afraid we are in trouble. We started out talking about trivialities with our interlocutor from the Al-Umma party and ended up with a massive deal. Now we are being asked to come up with large-scale credit for the cotton crop of [Al-Umma leader Sayed Abd al-Rahman] al-Mahdi, which entails an Israeli government guarantee to cover losses. Clearly we cannot give such a guarantee, and our refusal will generate disappointment."

5. Nuclear pact with the U.S.

The United States, too, viewed Nasser as an enemy and suggested to Israel a plan "to clip Nasser's wings." Sharett had reservations "both about the seriousness of their intentions and about our readiness to help in certain directions, in which we are already operating in any case." In contrast, prime minister Sharett was enthusiastic about the contents of an envelope he found on his desk on the morning of May 18, 1955, which contained the text of a contract being proposed by the United States to assist in nuclear research. Sharett: "The United States has implemented a similar contract with Turkey. If we accede to its request, we will be the second country to enter into this kind of contract with it. This will enhance Israel's honor and be of great importance to the country. I called Ben-Gurion and he came to my room immediately. We read the contract and found nothing faulty with it. It does not limit us ..." On the basis of his diary, it appears that Sharett was not well acquainted with the details of Israel's nuclear project.