Lavon Affair

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1960s political crisis in israel sparked by the security "mishap" of 1954.

The Lavon Affair was a dramatic and divisive political crisis that shook the entire Israeli political system, led to the resignation of prime minister David Ben-Gurion in July 1963, and caused major shifts in political alignments in the state. Its roots lay in what the Israeli press nicknamed Esek ha-Bish (the "Mishap"). A dormant group of Israeli-trained Egyptian Jews who were prepared for missions of espionage and sabotage in the event of war were ill-advisedly activated in June 1954 under orders from Colonel Benjamin Gibli (Givly), the head of the Intelligence Division of the Israeli Defense Forces. They were instructed to detonate firebombs in a few U.S. and British cultural institutions in Cairo and Alexandria in order to disrupt the negotiations, which were nearing conclusion, on the evacuation of British troops from bases along the Suez Canal. The group was captured by Egyptian security services. Two of the leading saboteurs were sentenced and hanged, an Israeli spy committed suicide in prison, and the others were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

Colonel Gibli maintained that he had received orders from Pinhas Lavon, who at the time was replacing Ben-Gurion as minister of defense. A secret inquiry committee appointed by the government of Moshe Sharett could not reach a clear judgment, and both Gibli and Lavon were obliged to resign their respective posts.

Four years later the commander of the special unit in charge of the operation in Egypt disclosed that one of the documents presented to the 1954 cabinet inquiry committee was forged. The attorney general was asked by Ben-Gurion to look into these allegations. Colonel Gibli admitted the forgery but continued to claim that he had received the order orally from Lavon, and that he had been compelled to forge the document when he realized that Lavon was trying to put all the blame on him. Lavon, who was then serving as secretary-general of the Histadrut, Israel's powerful trade-union umbrella organization, demanded a public exoneration from Ben-Gurion, who declined to give it, insisting that the affair had to be subjected to a judicial investigation.

Despite strict censorship, the incident became known under different euphemisms and code names to the general public, stirring up a political crisis within and outside of the Labor Party. The entire country was divided between those who supported Ben-Gurion's position and those who opposed him. The aging prime minister had angered the second generation of party leaders by promoting a group of still younger people such as Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres to important posts in the government, jumping over the heads of his erstwhile loyal lieutenants. For his part, Ben-Gurion was enraged that Lavon had brought his grievances to different forums outside of the party and had mobilized pressure by parties and newspapers that sought to weaken Labor's long-standing political dominance.

In order to quiet things down, the minister of finance, Levi Eshkol, by then the most powerful political figure besides Ben-Gurion, asked the minister of justice, Pinhas Rosen, to lead a ministerial committee of seven to determine how to deal with Lavon's demand for exhonoration and to bring the crisis to an end. This committee ruled that Lavon had not given the order for the sabotage action and that the document was indeed a forgery. But BenGurion was indignant and threatened to resign if Lavon did not quit his post at the Histadrut. Ben-Gurion, the "Old Man," was still powerful enough to impose his will on the party's central committee, but the entire affair weakened his standing among most of his party's elite. Eshkol refused to retract the committee's exonerating verdict and Ben-Gurion continued to demand a judicial inquiry. Additional friction ensued between BenGurion and the party elite, led by Golda Meir, minister of foreign affairs, who until then had been a long-time loyal supporter of Ben-Gurion. These frictions included a bitter controversy over Israel's relations with West Germany and over the development of the Israeli nuclear option.

The tired and embittered seventy-seven-year-old Ben-Gurion resigned in June 1963. Levi Eshkol replaced him as prime minister and minister of defense. In the 1965 elections Ben-Gurion and some of his supporters in the Lavon Affair split from the Labor Party and formed a new party, Rafi (List of Israeli Workers). This effectively marked the end of Ben-Gurion's political career.

see also ben-gurion, david; israel: political parties in; lavon, pinhas.


Lucas, Noah. The Modern History of Israel. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.

Sachar, Howard. A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion's Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal that Shaped Modern Israel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

mordechai bar-on

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Lavon Affair

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