Egyptian Bombings, Stubborn Leaders and Buried Nazi Gold: The Chronicles of the Tel Aviv Prime Minister's Bureau

The historic prime minister's bureau in Tel Aviv has been restored and opened to the public. If only its walls could talk

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Entrance to the Aberle House, aka the prime minister’s bureau, in Tel Aviv in 1948.
Entrance to the Aberle House, aka the prime minister’s bureau, in Tel Aviv in 1948.Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO
Nir Mann
Nir Mann

When Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister, in February 2001, he insisted on setting up his Tel Aviv bureau in the same building that had served as the headquarters of Israel’s premiers during the early years of the state, the Wilhelm Aberle House in the Kirya compound. Those of his immediate predecessors – Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak – who had held the post of defense minister simultaneously, preferred to use nearby office space designated for that position when they were working in Tel Aviv: It better suited their personal and security needs than the old Templer building. The security people tried in vain to get Sharon to reconsider, but he wanted to sit in the tiny office once occupied by David Ben-Gurion, the man who had written about him years earlier that “were he to be weaned of his fault of not speaking the truth in his reports, he would make an exemplary military leader.”

With time, Sharon had increasing difficulty climbing the stairs to the second floor, and installing an elevator in the old structure was an impossible architectural challenge. In February 2005, when the bureau of defense minister Shaul Mofaz moved from Building 22 (which housed the Ministry of Defense) to the new office tower in the Kirya, a plot was hatched to trick Sharon into moving to Building 22, on the fictitious pretext of an “urgent” need to renovate his office. Sharon swallowed the bait, and in autumn 2005 he agreed to the “temporary” move. In January 2006, Sharon suffered a massive stroke, and as a result, he never returned to the old “villa.”

This is only one story among many concerning the Aberle House in the Kirya. In 1986, Col. Yaacov Margaliot got word of a plan that threatened to harm the historic structure. The colonel, a colorful figure around the upper echelons of the Kirya, was responsible for the upkeep of the offices of its most senior occupants. He approached Yitzhak Rabin, at the time minister of defense (in the government of Yitzhak Shamir), and got him to draft a letter canceling the plan. Rabin, with Shamir’s agreement, wrote to his bureau chief, David Ivry, and IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron, “In light of the historic role played by the building in question, it is our intention to preserve, maintain and take care of it in a way that a building with its historic value will be preserved in its historic form, and in a fitting condition, for years to come.”

The plan to preserve the prime minister’s building evolved over a period of decades. Two years ago, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot instructed Lt. Col. Yigal Ben Ami, commander of Camp Rabin (the base of the IDF General Staff at the Kirya), a man with an enviable reputation for making things happen, to attend to the matter. The project of the prime minister’s building was entrusted to Maj. Esti Spector, an IDF architect. With a team of artisans and craftspeople, she oversaw the conversion of the building into a museum, which last month opened within the military base to the public.

Experts on the Jews

The prime minister's bureau in Tel Aviv in 1964.
The prime minister's bureau in Tel Aviv in 1964.Credit: David Eldan / GPO
The restored prime minister's bureau in Tel Aviv.
The restored prime minister's bureau in Tel Aviv.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The building of the old prime minister’s bureau is situated at the northern end of the German Templer settlement of Sarona. The house was built in 1930 by architect Theodor Wieland for Wilhelm Aberle, the leading businessman of the Templer community in the country. Aberle was the local agent for many commercial, banking and shipping interests. The three-story house was roofed with Marseille tiles, as was typical of the Templer style of building. The architectural style speaks of a strong Bauhaus influence. The house boasts a wine cellar, colorful floor tiles, intersecting ceiling arches, spiral staircases, round porthole windows, milky glass doors, colonnaded open balconies, and fine furniture. The house was laid out in the shape of the letter “Z”, to track the movement of the sun, as architect Sari Mark discovered. The family lived on the second floor, with service facilities on the top floor.

With the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, many Templers embraced the message of the Third Reich, and joined the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo as “experts on the Jews.” The commandant of the Mühldorf concentration camp, in Bavaria, was a member of the Aberle family, and had even studied at the Herzliya Gymnasia in Tel Aviv. He was the one who interrogated the Haganah parachutist Enzo Sereni – in Hebrew – before Sereni’s execution in Dachau in 1944.

In the summer of 1941, with Rommel’s army at the gates of Egypt, the British deported most of the residents of Sarona to Australia, and appropriated the compound for use by their police and military. The British police commander for the Lod District commandeered the Aberle house for his own use. During Israel’s War of Independence, the British camp became a target for assaults by Jewish resistance groups, the most daring of which were carried out by the Haganah on the “Night of Police Stations” (February 21-22, 1946, when four police structures were targeted), along with a car bomb detonated by the Lehi (aka, the Stern Gang).

With the departure of British forces from Palestine, the entire compound became a Haganah conscription center, as well as the base for the Givati and Kiryati Brigades, the air force, the armored forces commanded by Yitzhak Sadeh, the HQ of the road-breaching unit of the Harel-Palmach Brigade, and more. The HQ of the Kiryati Brigade, under the command of Michael Ben-Gal, was located in the Aberle House.

The 1963 ceremony in which Levi Eshkol took over from Ben-Gurion as premier, in the garden outside the PMO in the Kirya.
The 1963 ceremony in which Levi Eshkol took over from Ben-Gurion as premier, in the garden outside the PMO in the Kirya. Credit: Fritz Cohen / GPO

In spring 1948, with Jerusalem under siege and defined as an international jurisdiction, Sarona was chosen be the temporary home of the government offices, and the Aberle House was converted into the prime minister’s office. The northern bedroom on the second floor became Ben-Gurion’s workroom. A wooden door separated it from the cabinet conference room, which was adapted for its new purpose by breaking down the wall between the floor’s two other bedrooms.

A large garden was laid out behind the prime minister’s building. Shlomo Hayat, who was in charge of administration at the Defense Ministry, relates that “Ben-Gurion would go to the back garden to walk about and think. I would sometimes see him lying on the grass and talking with someone he had invited over. Receptions took place in the rose garden – for French prime minister Guy Mollet, around a bonfire to the singing of Suleiman Hagadol (the stage name of singer Shlomo Cohen); for the United Nations general secretary, Trygve Lie, of Norway; and for General U Nu of Burma. The ground was covered with wool duvets in a riot of colors. Ben-Gurion never took part in these receptions: He left that to [Shimon] Peres.”

“Ben-Gurion preferred being interviewed by the foreign press in the rose garden,” reminisces Prof. Meron Medzini, the spokesman for prime ministers Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir and Rabin, and sometime director of the Government Press Office, “perhaps because the TV spotlights couldn’t fit in his little workroom, or because they bothered him.”

The day after Israel declared independence, the Egyptians bombed Tel Aviv. On June 3, four Israeli soldiers were killed in the General Staff camp in Ramat Gan. Ben-Gurion was sitting there in the defense minister’s quarters when a burst of machine-gun fire riddled the lintel of the office. In the wake of that incident, the cabinet discussed its concern that the prime minister’s office in the Kirya, where cabinet meetings took place, might also be vulnerable to an attack. “I see a bombing psychosis,” Ben-Gurion said laconically. “I have more experience of this than the rest of you. I lived through it in London [during the “Blitz”]. The bombing is not so terrible, and the spread [of the bombs] is inefficient.” Nevertheless, the Templer wine cellar was prepared to serve as a meeting room in case of a bombing raid. A photograph of the period shows four identical tables pushed together, surrounded by chairs, with two kerosene lanterns on the tables, and a white telephone on a movable base.

Kindergarten kids at the entrance to the bureau in the '40s.
Kindergarten kids at the entrance to the bureau in the '40s.Credit: David Eldan / GPO

On May 16, the cabinet had its first meeting in the building, and confirmed the choice of Dr. Chaim Weizmann as president.

Over the course of a year and a half, the cabinet continued to meet in Ben-Gurion’s bureau in the Kirya. In the course of these meetings some of the fundamentals of government were determined on the basis of the contingencies of available real estate and office space. The best example of such a process was the decision on where the legislative body would meet, even as that body was struggling to establish its own political status. The People’s Council (“Mo’etzet Ha’am”) had been established in April 1948, and convened on three occasions in the Jewish National Fund building in Tel Aviv, alongside Dizengoff Center of today. The Declaration of Independence, which was presented in what was then the Tel Aviv Museum, confirmed the Council as the state’s legislative body, now to be known as the Provisional State Council, with 37 members. The Council, which eventually became the Knesset, got permission from the JNF to resume using its facility for meetings – on condition they took place only toward evening, so as not to interfere with the JNF’s office work. Within a month, the JNF grew tired of this emergency arrangement, and on June 17 the State Council moved to Ben-Gurion’s headquarters: he was, after all, its chairman as well.

When Ze’ev Sherf – director of the Prime Minister’s Office, and secretary of both the government and the Knesset – forced the members of the government and the Council into the Aberle family’s two bedrooms like sardines, it was clear to all that this arrangement would be like a time bomb. What set it off was the bloody Altalena incident of June 1948, when the newly established Israel Defense Forces attacked a ship off the coast of Tel Aviv that was carrying arms intended for the Revisionist militia Irgun, in violation of a government order. Ben-Gurion took charge of events from the defense minister’s office in Ramat Gan, and ignored the demand of the opposition “to convene a session of the State Council without delay, to discuss the situation that has arisen with respect to the arms ship that is anchored at the moment off the shores of Tel Aviv.” A sharp response of the Council was not long in coming. Its members moved their meetings to the Tel Aviv Museum, replaced Ben-Gurion as chairman with his rival Yosef Sprinzak, and demonstratively placed the seat of the Speaker of the Knesset above the government benches.

The Nazi pistol

After the signing of the Armistice Agreements on Rhodes in the spring and summer of 1949, architect Arieh Sharon, head of the Government Planning Department, was put in charge of planning the government compound at Sarona. The northern face of the compound (in the direction of Shaul Hamelech St., which hadn’t been paved yet) was meant to be fronted by a grand parade ground, a high gateway, and an eye-catching garden. But the prime minister’s building was in the way, and it was decided to demolish it. Ben-Gurion was furious, and demanded that “the building plans must take into account the inclusion of the existing prime minister’s building as a future museum.” The planners wanted Ben-Gurion to give up his demand, and understand that the architects did not see the building as a historic site.

Even architect and army general Yohanan Ratner agreed that it was impossible to incorporate the building into the plan. City engineer Yaakov Ben-Sira recommended “proposing to the prime minister another building in the Kirya, on a side street, to be preserved as a historic relic.”

The conference room at the bureau in 1948.
The conference room at the bureau in 1948.Credit: David Eldan / GPO

Ben-Gurion stood his ground, however. “That particular building must remain here, with a commemorative plaque noting that the first government of Israel assembled here on such-and-such a day.” The committee compromised. The impressive plan shifted in a northwesterly direction, breaking its harmonious symmetry in order to leave the prime minister’s office untouched. A year and a half after Ben-Gurion took up residence in his office, he gave instructions that the building should be regarded as a monument to the “pantheon of the national revival,” and in so doing he left the legacy of a museum to future generations. The only thing that remained of the original plan was the number of the Defense Ministry building – Building 22.

In December 1949, at the initiative of the Vatican and of Catholic nations, the UN General Assembly voted to confirm the internationalization of Jerusalem. In the wake of that, and within two weeks, Ben-Gurion moved government offices and the Knesset to Jerusalem; the building in the Kirya remained his Tel Aviv bureau. The Defense Ministry building, the largest and grandest office building in the country, was dedicated in February, 1955. “Throughout his time in the Kirya, Ben-Gurion boycotted Building 22,” relates Shlomo Hayat; “he never set foot in the door of the defense minister’s headquarters, which was the most elaborate government office of all.”

Most of the stories of the Prime Minister’s Office will remain hidden forever within its mystery-shrouded walls. When the British evicted the Templers from Sarona, some of the residents hastily hid guns and gold in corners of their homes. Over the years an “industry” of seeking Nazi treasure developed. The high point came in 2003, when the architect Dr. Danny Goldman, an expert on the Templer community, unearthed a hoard of gold coins in a remote basement in Sarona, money that T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had used to pay the Templer builder Josef Wennegal for work done for the British forces during World War I. After this discovery, the pace of exploration became much more feverish, in moldy attics, in hidden cracks in the walls, in underground tunnels, and between the tangled roots of trees.