55 Years Since the Lavon Affair / Ancient History?

Marcelle Ninio choked up. She had trouble restraining her emotions - and perhaps didn't even try - when she heard about the death of Maj. Gen. Meir Amit, who was buried yesterday.

Amit, among his other roles during the early years of the state, had been head of army intelligence and the Mossad espionage agency. Amit entered these positions after Ninio and others in her spy network of Egyptian Jews and others were arrested in Egypt in 1954, in what became known as the Lavon affair, for then-defense minister Pinhas Lavon.

Amit inherited the case, along with responsibility for the fate of Ninio and her colleagues. Due to his pressure, those who were still alive were released - two had been hanged and one committed suicide.

The affair involved an attempt to operate a spy cell of Egyptian Jews and others, who would set off bombs in order to destabilize the country and halt the prospect of a British withdrawal. This week marks 55 years since the Lavon affair became public. The spy network was responsible for a wave of bombings on July 23, 1954, two years after the army officers' revolution that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser and his colleagues to power.

At the center of the controversy over the Lavon affair was the matter of who activated the spy ring. The head of army intelligence at the time, Binyamin Gibli, claimed the order came from Lavon. Lavon denied it. A whole series of investigations never got to to the bottom of the matter, although there was evidence that Gibli ordered documents be forged in order to strengthen his case. It was also never clear what then-IDF chief of staff Moshe Dayan knew, and when he knew it.

As senior defense officials fought to preserve their reputations, this didn't change the circumstances for the spy ring across the border. They had received an order from their handlers, followed it, and paid a far heavier personal price - including death, torture or up to 14 years in prison - than those wrangling in Tel Aviv over the affair.

Ninio, Amit and others who helped the spies settle in Israel never considered the Lavon Affair ancient history. And it is not even clear that the affair's lessons were learned. If time had been set aside, current IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi could have discussed the matter when he visited President Shimon Peres yesterday. Peres was Defense Ministry director general at the time of the Lavon Affair. Peres was also prime minister at the time of another spy affair, when Jonathan Pollard was arrested in the United States.