Lavon Affair, the

views updated


The "Lavon Affair" began with a security mishap, which was at first referred to as the "esek bish" ("the bad business"). At the beginning of July 1954, an Israel-initiated intelligence operation in *Egypt, involving a plan to plant bombs in several movie houses, post offices, and the American Cultural Centers in Cairo and Alexandria, which was intended to sabotage negotiations between Egypt and Great Britain regarding the British withdrawal from the Suez Canal, failed. Eleven Egyptian Jews, who had served as Israeli agents, were caught and tried in Cairo. In January 1955 two of them were sentenced to death and executed, two were released for lack of evidence, and the rest received sentences of seven years to life imprisonment, and this despite a reported promise by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser that the sentences would not be heavy. Israel refused to officially admit any connection to the botched operation and, consequently, did nothing to assist the 11, believing that they would receive light sentences (see *Marzouk, Moshe). The main question raised at the time in Israel was whether it had been Minister of Defense Pinhas *Lavon, or the officer in charge of Intelligence Operations – Colonel Binyamin Givli – who had given the order to carry out the ill-conceived operation, of which Prime Minister Moshe *Sharett had not been informed. To the present day there is no clear answer to this question. But what is clear is that for nearly a decade Israeli politics were deeply affected by the affair's ramifications, especially since David *Ben-Gurion, who had been in semi-retirement in Sedeh Boker when it occurred, would not let it die. The then-chief of staff, Moshe *Dayan, claimed that it had been Lavon who had given the order, but others argued otherwise.

Soon after the trials in Egypt, a committee made up of Supreme Court Justice Isaac *Olshan and Israel's first chief of staff, Ya'akov *Dori, was appointed by Sharett to investigate the matter but was unable to reach any clearcut conclusions. Nevertheless, Lavon was forced to resign as minister of defense, and David Ben-Gurion assumed the post under Sharett on February 21, 1955. Binyamin Givli was removed from Intelligence Operations.

In 1957 an investigation began against an Israeli spy who had been in charge of the network in Egypt, on charges that had little to do with the Egyptian operation. At the time he was referred to as "the third man," who was later revealed to be Avri Elad. In the course of his secret trial, the full details of which are still unpublished, Elad admitted to having committed perjury and giving false information to the Olshan-Dori Committee at Givli's behest. Further evidence about the forging of a key document was given by Givli's secretary at the time, Dalia Carmel, who had played an active role in the forgery. In August 1960 Elad was sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment on charges of illegally holding secret documents.

In 1958 a secret committee of inquiry was set up by the idf to look into all the evidence, but even though it established that documents had been forged and perjury had been committed, no measures were taken against those involved. In May 1960, Lavon spoke to David Ben-Gurion, who asked his aide-de-camp to look into the matter, and the latter returned with the same information: that indeed documents had been forged. A committee, headed by Supreme Court Justice Haim *Cohn was appointed in September 1960, on Ben-Gurion's orders, to inquire into the allegations against Givli. The Cohn Committee Report, published in part on October 23, 1960, resulted in Givli's resignation from active military service. The attorney general, Gideon *Hausner, recommended that an investigation take place to determine whether anyone should be put on trial, but the Mapai leadership was not interested in a trial. Though the press at the time was full of partial information regarding the affair, most of the actors remained unnamed, except for Lavon himself.

Lavon felt that the Committee's Report exonerated him from the suspicions that it was he who had given the order, but Ben-Gurion refused to clear his name, convinced that Lavon was lying. Lavon was not, however, short of supporters. These included Golda *Meir, Pinḥas *Sapir, Zalman *Aranne, and Mordekhai *Namir, while Sharett, even though he was not close to Lavon, actually announced that the Cohn Committee Report had exonerated him.

Ben-Gurion convinced Givli to demand of the chief of staff, Ḥayyim *Laskov, that a judicial committee of inquiry be established to investigate the responsibility for what had happened in Egypt, and Lavon insisted that the issue be raised in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Contrary to Ben-Gurion's wishes the government decided on October 30, upon a proposal by Minister of Justice Pinhas *Rosen, and with the concurrence of Minister of Finance Levi *Eshkol, to set up yet another committee, made up of seven ministers, headed by Rosen, to review the issue. Though the committee heard witnesses, it did not have the power to subpoena any. In his testimony before the committee, Lavon alleged that at the time of the Olshan-Dori inquiry officials in the Ministry of Defense had conspired against him, and accused Shimon *Peres, who had been director general of the ministry, of disloyalty. Representatives of the committee were also sent abroad to interview Dalia Carmel, about the forgery of the document, and Major General (Res) Yehoshafat Harkabi, who had replaced Givli in Intelligence Operations. The committee reached the unanimous conclusion that Lavon had not given the order and recommended that the matter be closed. The committee's report was endorsed by the government on December 25. However, Ben-Gurion himself refused to accept the report, and now demanded himself that the matter be reviewed by a judicial body, which unlike the ministerial committee headed by Rosen, would have the right to subpoena witnesses. Though a motion on a proposal of no-confidence brought in the Knesset by the opposition on January 30, 1961, was defeated, Ben-Gurion was severely criticized for his attitude. The following day he submitted his resignation, and his government continued to serve as an interim government until new elections were held for the Fifth Knesset in August 1961.

Ben-Gurion now seemed set on a personal vendetta against Lavon, and even though a group of prominent intellectuals, including Martin *Buber, Prof.Hugo *Bergman, and Prof. Nathan *Rotenstreich, came out openly against what they considered his anti-democratic conduct, in February 1961 he managed to get the Mapai Central Committee to decide to dismiss Lavon from his position as secretary general of the Histadrut – a position he had been reelected to in 1956. Among those who objected to the dismissal was Sharett, who declared that "it is not honor and justice that are our guiding light, but fear and the settling of accounts." However, criticism of Ben-Gurion mounted, and even though he formed a new government in November 1961, in June 1963 he resigned the premiership for the last time, and upon his recommendation Levi Eshkol was appointed prime minister. Eshkol's inclination was to finally close the Lavon Affair that had bedeviled Mapai for close to a decade. Nevertheless, in October 1964 Ben-Gurion made one more effort to rekindle the issue, and submitted a file full of documents on the Lavon Affair to Minister of Justice Dov *Joseph, and to Attorney General Moshe Ben-Ze'ev. Ben-Gurion claimed that the Rosen Ministerial Committee had been faulty, and yet again demanded that a judicial inquiry be held on its proceedings. Joseph rejected the idea of a judicial inquiry, but recommended that a comprehensive official inquiry be held into the Lavon Affair. Eshkol rejected the recommendation, and after meeting with boisterous opposition from Ben-Gurion's supporters in the Mapai Central Committee, submitted his resignation, demanding that a new government be formed with unfettered discretion to decide the matter without party interference. Eshkol formed a new government in December 1964, and in 1965, Ben-Gurion with seven of his supporters left Mapai, and formed their own parliamentary group – *Rafi.

In the aftermath of the Six-Day War Israel could have demanded the release of those of the agents who were still imprisoned in Egypt but refrained from doing so. It was only the following year, in 1968, that the remaining prisoners were released.


S. Teveth, Ben-Gurion's Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal that Shaped Modern Israel (1996); E. Hassin and D. Horowitz, Ha-Parashah (1961); D. Ben-Gurion, Devarim ka-Havayatam (1965); J. Arieli, Ha-Kenunyah (1966); N. Yanai, Kerah ba-Ẓameret: Ha-Mashber she-Zi'az'a et Mapai ve-Hevi le-Hakamat Rafi (1969); A. Elad, Ha-Adam ha-Shelishi (1976); H. Eshed, Mi Natan et Hahora'ah: "Esek ha-Bish," Parashat Lavon ve-Hitpatterut Ben-Gurion (1979); I. Harel, Anatomyah shel Begidah: "Ha-Adam ha-Shelishi" veha-Mapolet be-Miẓrayim (1980); idem, Kam Ish al Ahiv: Ha-Nittu'ahha-Musmakh ve-ha-Memazeh shel "Parashat Lavon" (1982); R. Dasa, BeḤazarah le-Kahir (1992); Y. Harkabi, Edut Ishit – "Ha-Parashah" mi-Nekudat Re'uti (1994); E. Kafkafi, LavonAnti Mashi'aḥ (1998); S. Aronson, David Ben-GurionManhig ha-Renasans she-Shaka (1999).

[Susan Hattis Rolef (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Lavon Affair, the

Updated About content Print Article