On November 5, 1956, after the launching of the Sinai and Suez campaigns, Soviet Foreign Minister Dmitri Shepilov summoned the diplomatic representatives of Britain, France and Israel one by one and handed each a similar message from Premier Nikolai Bulganin.
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Britain and France received some time for thought, but the message to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was broadcast in full that night on Moscow Radio.
Bulganin condemned the “armed aggression against Egypt,” insisting on a cease-fire and withdrawal, and added that “Israel’s government acted as a tool of foreign imperialist powers.” As he put it, “Israel is playing with the fate of peace, with the fate of its own people, in a criminal and irresponsible manner that will put a question mark on the very existence of Israel as a state.” An internal CIA document highlighted the last line with two black lines.
Bulganin continued: “Considering the situation, the Soviet government has decided to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv to Moscow immediately. We hope the Israeli government will understand and evaluate our warning appropriately.”
The following day the messages to France and Britain were published as well. What would France or Britain’s situation be, Bulganin wondered, had these countries been attacked by stronger countries that had “modern weapons of destruction”?
The three notes were cleverly crafted so as not to make U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, on the eve of reelection, suppress his anger and side with the NATO members, which attacked Egypt despite his objections. The threat to Britain and France was explicit: surface-to-surface missiles.
Spymaster’s caution in Sinai
Ben-Gurion, intoxicated with the victory of conquering Sinai and launching “the Third Kingdom of Israel,” sobered up and caved to the American-Soviet pressure. Perhaps Eisenhower’s tough response sufficed.
But the Israel Defense Forces, which carried out the operation with a success that astounded Israelis no less than the whole world, didn’t forgive the man who persuaded Ben-Gurion to heed Bulganin’s threat. This was spymaster Isser Harel, head of the Mossad and formerly of the Shin Bet security service. The news of Southern Command chief Asaf Simhoni’s death in a plane crash in Jordan made Ben-Gurion take Harel’s horror scenarios seriously.
IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, along with Military Intelligence head Yehoshafat Harkabi and Meir Amit, disagreed. Amit – the operation’s chief planner and acting chief of staff while Dayan wandered in the field among the battles and his antiquities digs – was especially disappointed.
Military Intelligence’s disputes with the Mossad were no secret, and the Yom Kippur War 17 years later brought them clearly to the surface. But recently declassified IDF documents show how wide the rift between the Military Intelligence chiefs and Harel was.
Military Intelligence said the Soviet threat was nothing but “the noise of someone who isn’t capable of implementing his shouts. There are no concrete intelligence signs of army or air movements, or of a change in the situation in Syria,” the chief of staff’s bureau chief wrote to Ben-Gurion. “An examination of Isser’s sources shows that they are unverified and even biased to some extent.”
Military Intelligence expected the Mossad and Foreign Ministry to provide basic and warning information about the powers, except for France, with which communication was conducted by the Defense Ministry and Military Intelligence.
One failure followed another. In 1955 there was no knowledge of the Czechoslovak (actually Soviet) arms deal with Egypt, and now Bulganin’s exaggerated interpretation was added to his sudden threat. It came out as if the IDF was responsible for the achievement and the Mossad for the withdrawal.
The not-so-fabulous ‘50s
The tensions between the Mossad and Military Intelligence characterized the period in which Harel headed the civilian security and intelligence services, which were subordinate directly to Ben-Gurion. When Dayan was appointed chief of staff, the British structure of the IDF’s Operations Division – headed by a general, consisting of intelligence and training departments – was scrapped. Training and intelligence divisions were set up headed by colonels Yitzhak Rabin and Binyamin Gibli.
On the eve of the Sinai Campaign, Harkabi sent Ben-Gurion’s adviser Shaul Avigur a memorandum on the foreign intelligence authority’s problematic relations with the Mossad. Harkabi suggested appointing, with the Mossad chief’s approval, a Military Intelligence man as head of the foreign intelligence authority, who would be subordinate to the Mossad chief.
In April 1959, Harkabi followed in the footsteps of all Military Intelligence heads since the state had been established 11 years earlier. Isser Be’eri, head of Military Intelligence, was dismissed following a raft of scandals. Gibli followed suit when he came under investigation for the Lavon Affair – a failed Israeli sabotage operation in Egypt in 1954.
Harkabi was dismissed due to the 1959 fiasco in which, during a drill, reservists were called up on Israel Radio, causing a panic. Chaim Herzog, who headed intelligence for the Operations Division, was returned to Military Intelligence. He wasn’t dismissed but was badly embarrassed due to the intelligence service’s blindness in view of Egyptian forces’ entry into Sinai in February 1960.
On the face of it, Harel won. The distancing of Herzog marked the beginning of the end because for the first time a veteran general, a suitable candidate for chief of staff, was appointed chief of Military Intelligence. Harel was finally pushed to resign, after again making exaggerations and giving unsubstantiated warnings, this time in the affair of the German scientists in Egypt.
Amit was appointed acting Mossad chief, in addition to heading Military Intelligence, as Harkabi had recommended. For two decades the IDF took over the Mossad, with Amit heading the agency followed by Zvi Zamir and Yitzhak Hofi, while Yekutiel Adam was killed in the first Lebanon war after being appointed but before taking office.
Amit took the Mossad from the Middle Ages into the modern era. A different spirit now prevailed, devoted to preparing the IDF and cabinet for war. There were now warm personal and professional relations between the Mossad and Military Intelligence chiefs, and with units and their missions that Amit brought over from Military Intelligence.
His advice to Ben-Gurion to set up a “new body, a general intelligence service based on merging the functions of Military Intelligence and the Mossad” may not have been taken. But the dividing walls fell and the army’s adjustments for the next war, the Six-Day War, was improved and streamlined, to a large extent due to the searing memory of the Sinai Campaign, Bulganin’s vague threat and Harel’s false panic.