Israel Reveals Controversial 'Lavon Affair' Correspondence, 62 Years Later

The files, relating to the covert Israeli operation in Egypt that forced the resignation of Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, show that the IDF intelligence chief at the time tried unsuccessfully to clear his name.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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The late IDF Intelligence Corps chief Binyamin Gibli left, and Chief of Staff Haim Laskov.
The late IDF Intelligence Corps chief Binyamin Gibli left, and Chief of Staff Haim Laskov.
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

The Defense Minister released a collection of documents on Thursday from more than 50 years ago relating to the Lavon Affair. Code-named Operation Susannah by IDF military intelligence, it involved a Jewish terror cell in Egypt that was sought to undermine Cairo’s relations with the United States and Britain. The newly released documents show that the head of the IDF Intelligence Corps, Binyamin Gibli, made major but unsuccessful efforts to clear his name over the matter.

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 like the bombs were the work of Egyptians. Then-Prime Minister Moshe Sharett apparently had no advance knowledge of the operation, but it forced the resignation of then-Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon.

The newly released correspondence from Haim Laskov, the IDF chief of staff in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as from Gibli himself, relate to Gibli's efforts to clear his name after he was dismissed from his post.

In 1960, Gibli denied that he had been the one to give the orders to carry out the attacks in Egypt and asked that a committee of inquiry be convened. "I don't see any other way to defend my honor as an IDF officer and human being," he wrote.

The Lavon Affair was a source of major controversy in Israel for years, ultimately even resulting in the resignation of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who was appointed defense minister to succeed Lavon. In a letter sent to Ben-Gurion by Laskov in 1958, the chief of staff recounted a conversation that he had with Gibli in which Gibli asked if he could be appointed to a post as major general. "Gibli has a bad name in the IDF and as long as his name is not cleared with facts and work, this matter will stand in the way of his promotion in rank," Laskov wrote. One way to clarify the facts, Laskov wrote, would be through a committee of inquiry, which he said should be made up of highly trustworthy people so that the committee's conclusions would not be second-guessed.

In his own letters, Gibli asked the chief of staff and defense minister to appoint a new committee of inquiry, despite the fact that there had already been an official investigative committee convened to investigate. Gibli claimed the earlier panel had wrongly concluded that he had forced an intelligence officer to perjure himself. Gibli also insisted that he gave the orders to carry out the attacks in Egypt based on instructions from Lavon, the defense minister.

The documents also included the minutes of a meeting of the IDF General Staff from November 1954, which had been released in the past, but even on their re-release now, 62 years later, major passages were excised by the military censor and other sections were not released at all.

Beyond its political ramifications in Israel, two members of the Jewish terror cell, Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, were executed in Egypt. Six others were sentenced to long prison sentences and only released in 1968. A member of Israeli intelligence, Meir Bineth, committed suicide in an Egyptian prison. The cell commander, Avri Elad, who was suspected of turning the cell members over to Egyptian authorities, managed to flee from Egypt to Europe, but was later sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of selling Israeli documents to the Egyptians.

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