The Makings of History / Lost in Translation

Information appears in new book about David Ben-Gurion, published by President Shimon Peres and David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz.

President Shimon Peres and David Landau, former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, recently published a book about David Ben-Gurion. It came out in the United States in October as "Ben-Gurion: A Political Life, Shimon Peres in Conversation with David Landau" (Schocken/Nextbook ), and is now appearing in Hebrew (Keter Publishing ). On page 182 of the English edition, there is a stunning piece of information, regarding the capture of Adolf Eichmann: "The Argentinian government had some advance knowledge of what Israel was up to, and indeed, Argentinian police agents observed the abduction."

Eichmann was 54 years old at the time of his abduction, in May 1960. He came home from work, as he did every evening; he was unarmed and unprepared for danger. The street was dark. It was therefore not so very difficult to kidnap him. Smuggling him out of Argentina disguised as a flight attendant entailed a certain amount of complexity, but this too did not exceed what might be expected of Mossad and Shin Bet agents. Nevertheless, even after 50 years, the operation still promulgates a myth of daring and sophistication - a myth that features prominently, among other places, on the website of the Shin Bet.

Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.
The Federal Archive

This myth may be refuted in view of the revelation that Argentina knew about the operation in advance. It is no wonder that one of the commanders of the operation is furious: former minister Rafi Eitan. "It's simply nonsense," Eitan told me, "utter nonsense, concocted out of thin air. I can say for certain that no one from the government in Argentina knew about the operation ahead of time." Eitan should know this of course, but Shimon Peres is also ostensibly a source worth listening to: At the time he was deputy to the defense minister, Ben-Gurion.

Peres is not the first source for this version of the story: It also appears in a book about the Eichmann trial published a few months ago by the American historian Deborah E. Lipstadt. The details of her account differ slightly from those of Peres': She mentions an Argentinian agent who observed events, not police officers - protecting herself with the word "apparently," and also substantiating the story by citing a scholarly source. But her source was not, for example, a dossier from Argentina's secret service, but rather an article that appeared three years ago in Arete, a literary journal published in England.

The author of the article is Stan Lauryssens, a Belgian crime writer who also pens biographies. Lauryssens wrote a book about Dutch-born Willem Sassen - a journalist who served in the Waffen-S.S. and was among Eichmann's associates in Argentina - and recorded Sassen's recollections of Eichmann's life story. Lauryssens has a rather colorful website on which he also claims that Sassen worked for the Mossad, being paid $5,000 a month. And he reports that he has adapted the material about Eichmann into a play, with a cast of characters that includes the film director Alfred Hitchcock.

Peres and Landau's book was brought out by the U.S. publisher Schocken Books, an imprint of Random House that is also responsible for Lipstadt's book, and evidently the story wandered from her book to theirs. In preparing for the Hebrew edition, the question came up as to whether it was seemly for the president of the state to repeat such a story, whose source is dubious. The answer as usual with Peres is yes and no, in the form of nine words that appear on page 207 of the Hebrew edition: "The Argentinian authorities had some notion of Israel's intentions." The Argentinian police agents who supposedly observed the operation from afar, and who are mentioned in the English edition, have vanished.

If the story is true, it will bolster the demand that the Mossad open up on behalf of historical research the archival material that documents what Israel did and did not do to capture Nazi criminals, Eichmann among them. This material is off-limits for now. What the Mossad does display, at present in the Knesset lounge, is an exhibition of several items related to the kidnapping, including the plastic comb that Eichmann carried in his pocket.

Peres and Landau's book is definitely worth reading, mainly because of the charged dispute between the two of them over their subject: Landau attacks Ben-Gurion for his reaction to the Holocaust and the failure to rescue the Jews. Peres tries to defend the prime minister: "That's rubbish, rubbish! But lets go down to earth: What could they have done?"

Landau: "He could have raised the heavens. Shouted."

Peres: "Today you can shout. Then, there was no shouting."

Landau observes that Ben-Gurion concentrated all his energy on efforts to establish the state, instead of on rescue operations. To which Peres responds: "He felt that these were the priorities, and they were immutable at the time, and that was that."