ISRAHELL HISTORY: The Lavon Affair

In July 1954 Egypt was plagued by a series of bomb outrages directed mainly against American and British property in Cairo and Alexandria. It was generally assumed that they were the work of the Moslem Brothers, then the most dangerous challenge to the still uncertain authority of Colonel (later President) Nasser and his two-year-old revolution. Nasser was negotiating with Britain over the evacuation of its giant military bases in the Suez Canal Zone, and, the Moslem Brothers, as zealous nationalists, were vigorously opposed to any Egyptian compromises.

It therefore came as a shock to world, and particularly Jewish opinion, when on 5 October the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, Zakaria Muhieddin, announced the break-up of a thirteen-man Israeli sabotage network. An ‘anti-Semitic’ frame-up was suspected.

Indignation increased when, on 11 December, the group was brought to trial. In the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett denounced the ‘wicked plot hatched in Alexandria … the show trial which is being organized there against a group of Jews who have fallen victims to false accusations and from who mit seems attempts are being made to extract confessions of imaginary crimes, by threats and torture . . .’49 The trade union newspaper Davar observed that the Egyptian regime ‘seems to take its inspiration from the Nazis’ and lamented the ‘deterioration in the status of Egyptian Jews in general‘.50 For Haaretz the trial ‘proved that the Egyptian rulers do not hesitate to invent the most fantastic accusations if it suits them’; it added that ‘in the present state of affairs in Egypt the junta certainly needs some diversions‘.51 And the next day the .7erusalem Post carried this headline: ‘Egypt Show Trial Arouses Israel, Sharett Tells House. Sees Inquisition Practices Revived.’

The trial established that the bombings had indeed been carried out by an Israeli espionage and terrorist network. This was headed by Colonel Avraharn Dar –alias John Darling– and a core of professionals who had set themselves up in Egypt under various guises. They had recruited a number of Egyptian Jews; one of them was a young woman, Marcelle Ninio, who worked in the offices of a British company. Naturally, the eventual exposure of such an organization was not going to improve the lot of the vast majority of Egyptian Jews who wanted no-thing to do with Zionism. There were still at least 50,000 Jews in Egypt; there had been something over 60,000 in 1947, more than half of whom were actually foreign nationals. During the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the populace had some times vented its frustration against them, and some were killed in mob violence or by terrorist bombs. In spite of this, and of the revolutionary upheaval which followed four years later, few Jews-including the foreign nationals-left the country, and fewer still went to Israel. A Jewish journalist insisted: ‘We, Egyptian Jews, feel secure in our homeland, Egypt.’52

The welfare of Oriental Jewry in their various homelands was, as we have seen, Israel’s last concern. And in July 1954 it had other worries. It was feeling isolated and insecure. Its Western friends-let alone the rest of the world-were unhappy about its aggressive behaviour. The US Assistant Secretary of State advised it to ‘drop the attitude of the conqueror’.53 More alarming was the rapprochement under way between Egypt, on the one hand, and the United States and Britain on the other. President Eisenhower had urged Britain to give up her giant military base in the Suez Canal Zone; Bengurion had failed to dissuade her. It was to sabotage this rapprochement that the head of Israeli intelligence, Colonel Benyamin Givli, ordered his Egyptian intelligence ring to strike.

Givli’s boss, Defence Minister Pinhas Lavon, and the Prime Minister, Moshe Sharett, knew nothing of the operation. For Givli was a member of a powerful Defence Ministry clique which often acted independently, or in outright defiance, of the cabinet. They were proteges of Bengurion and, although ‘The Old Man’ had left the Premiership for Sde Boker, his Negev desert retreat, a few months before, he was able, through them, to perpetuate the hardline ‘activist’ policies in which he believed. On Givli’s instructions, the Egyptian network was to plant bombs in American and British cultural centres, British-owned cinemas and Egyptian public buildings. The Western powers, it was hoped, would conclude that there was fierce internal opposition to the rapprochement and that Nasser’s young r6gime,faced with this challenge, was not one in which they could place much confidence.54 Mysterious violence might therefore persuade both London and Washington that British troops should remain astride the Canal; the world had not forgotten Black Saturday, 28 January 1951, in the last year of King Farouk’s reign, when mobs rampaged through downtown Cairo, setting fire to foreign-owned hotels and shops, in which scores of people, including thirteen Britons, died.

The first bomb went off, on 2 July, in the Alexandria post office. On 11 July, the Anglo-Egyptian Suez negotiations, which had been blocked for nine months, got under way again. The next day the Israeli embassy in London was assured that, up on the British evacuation from Suez, stock-piled arms would not be handed over to the Egyptians. But the Defence Ministry activists were unconvinced. On 14 July their agents, in clandestine radio contact with Tel Aviv, fire-bombed US Information Service libraries in Cairo and Alexandria. That same day, a phosphorous bomb exploded prematurely in the pocket of one Philip Natanson, nearly burning him alive, as he was about to enter the British-owned Rio cinema in Alexandria. His arrest and subsequent confession led to the break-up of the whole ring-but not before the completion of another cycle of clandestine action and diplomatic failure. On 15 July President Eisenhower assured the Egyptians that ‘simultaneously’ with the signing of a Suez agreement the United States would enter into ‘firm commitments’ for economic aid to strengthen their armed forces.55 On 23 July –anniversary of the 1952 revolution– the Israeli agents still at large had a final fling; they started fires in two Cairo cinemas, in the central post office and the railway station. On the same day, Britain announced that the War Secretary, Antony Head, was going to Cairo. And on 27 July he and the Egyptians initiated the ‘Heads of Agreement’ on the terms of Britain’s evacuation.

The trial lasted from 11 December to 3 January. Not all the culprits were there, because Colonel Dar and an Israeli colleague managed to escape, and the third Israeli, Hungarian-born Max Bennett, committed suicide; but those who were present all pleaded guilty. Most of them, including Marcelle Ninio, were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. But Dr Musa Lieto Marzuk, a Tunisian-born citizen of France who was a surgeon at the Jewish Hospital in Cairo, and Samuel Azar, an engineering professor from Alexandria, were condemned to death. In spite of representations from France, Britain and the United States the two men were hanged. Politically, it would have been very difficult for Nasser to spare them, for only seven weeks before six Moslem Brothers had been executed for complicity in an attempt on his life. Nevertheless Israel reacted with grief and anger. So did some Western Jews. Marzuk and Azar ‘died the death of martyrs’, said Sharett on the same day in the Knesset, whose members stood in silent tribute. Israel went into official mourning the following day. Beersheba and Ramat Gan named streets after the executed men. Israeli delegates to the Egyptian-Israeli Mixed Armistice Commission refused to attend its meeting, declaring that they would not sit down with representatives of the Cairo junta. In New York there were bomb threats against the Egyptian consulate and a sniper fired four shots into its fourth-floor window.56

This whole episode, which was to poison Israeli political life for a decade and more, came to be known as the ‘Lavon Affair’, for it had been established in the Cairo trial that Lavon, as Minister of Defence, had approved the campaign of sabotage. At least so the available evidence made it appear. But in Israel, Lavon had asked Moshe Sharett for a secret inquiry into a matter about which the cabinet knew nothing. Benyamin Givli, the intelligence chief, claimed that the so-called ‘security operation’ had been authorized by Lavon himself. Two other Bengurion proteges, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, testified against Lavon. Lavon denounced Givli’s papers as forgeries and demanded the resignation of all three men. Instead, Sharett ordered Lavon himself to resign and invited Bengurion to come out of retirement and take over the Defence Ministry. It was a triumphant comeback for the ‘activist’ philosophy whose excesses both Sharett and Lavon had tried to modify. It was con-summated, a week later, by an unprovoked raid on Gaza, which left thirty-nine Egyptians dead and led to the Suez War Of 1956.57

When the truth about the Lavon Affair came to light, six years after the event, it confirmed that there had been a frame-up-not, however, by the Egyptians, but by Bengurion and his young proteges. Exposure was fortuitous. Giving evidence in a forgery trial in September 1960, a witness divulged on passant that he had seen the faked signature of Lavon on a document relating to a 1954 ‘security mishap’.58 Bengurion immediately announced that the three-year statute of limitations prohibited the opening of the case. But Lavon, now head of the powerful Histradut Trade Union Federation, seized upon this opportunity to demand an inquiry. Bengurion did everything in his power to stop it, but his cabinet overruled him. The investigation revealed that the security operation’ had been planned behind Lavon’s back. His signature had been forged, and the bombing had actually begun long before his approval –which he withheld– had been sought. He was a scapegoat pure and simple. On Christmas Day 1960,the Israeli cabinet unanimously exonerated him of all guilt in the ‘disastrous security adventure in Egypt’; the Attorney General had, in the meantime, found ‘conclusive evidence of forgeries as well as false testimony in an earlier inquiry’.59 Bengurion was enraged. He issued an ultimatum to the ruling Labour party to remove Lavon, stormed out of a cabinet meeting and resigned. In what one trade unionist described as ‘an immoral and unjust submission to dictatorship’, his diehard supporters in the Histradut swung the vote in favour i)f accepting Lavon’s resignation. Lavon, however, won a moral victory over the man who twice forced him from office. In the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, students demonstrated in his favour. They carried placards reading: ‘Bengurion Go to Sde Boker, Take Dayan and Peres with You. We do Not Accept Leaders with Elastic Consciences.’60 The affair rocked the ruling establishment, split public opinion, forced new elections and contributed largely to Bengurion’s eventual disappearance from public life.

But Lavon was not the only real victim. There were also those misguided Egyptian Jews who paid with their lives or long terms of imprisonment. It is true that when, in 1968, Marcelle Ninio and her colleagues were exchanged for Egyptian’ prisoners in Israel, they received a heroes’ welcome. True, too, that when Miss Ninio got married Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defence Minister Dayan and Chief of Staff General Bar Lev all attended the wedding and Dayan told the bride ‘the Six-Day War was success enough that it led to your freedom’.61 However, after spending fourteen years in an Egyptian prison, the former terrorists did not share the leadership’s enthusiasm. When Ninio and two of her colleagues appeared on Israel television a few years later, they all expressed the belief that the reason why they were not released earlier was because Israel made little effort to get them out. ‘Maybe they didn’t want us to come back,’ said Robert Dassa. ‘There was so much intrigue in Israel. We were instruments in the hands of the Egyptians and of others … and what is more painful after all that we went through is that this continues to be so.’ In Ninio’s opinion, ‘the government didn’t want to spoil its relations with the United States and didn’t want the embarrassment of admitting it was behind our action’.62

But the real victims were the great mass of Egyptian Jewry. Episodes like the Lavon Affair tended to identify them, in the mind of ordinary Egyptians, with the Zionist movement. When, in 1956, Israeli invaded and occupied Sinai, feeling ran high against them. The government, playing into the Zionist hands, began ordering Jews to leave the country. Belatedly, reluctantly, 21,000 left in the following year; more were expelled later, and others, their livelihood gone, had nothing to stay for. But precious few went to Israel.

Ref: Al Jazeera

NOTES

49. Jerusalem Post, 12 December 1954.
5O. 13 December 1954.
51. 13 December 1954.
52. Berger, op. cit., p. 14.
53. love, Kennett, Suez: The Twice-Fought War, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1969, P. 71.
54. Ibid., p . 73.
55. Ibid., p. 74.
56. Love, op. cit., P. 77.
57. See p. 198.
58. New York Times, 10 February 1961.
59. Ibid
60. Jewish Chronicle, London, 17 February 1971.
61. Ha’olam Hazeh, 1 December 1971
62. Associated Press, 16 March 1975.

VIDEO: Post-American world! + The US as a great warrior tribe

RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze speaks to American journalist and CNN programme host Fareed Zakaria to find out what he thinks about Obama’s administration in Washington, and the U.S. influence in the world.

FOCUS: IMPERIUM
The US as a great warrior tribe

According to tribal Yemeni tradition, if a dispute has been resolved peacefully, any dagger that has been drawn cannot go back into its scabbard unless it tastes blood. Traditionally, an animal is slaughtered to satisfy its thirst and restore its holder’s honour.

Since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact without a single shot, let alone nuclear warheads, being fired, the ‘Greater Middle East’ region has been turned into a real theatre of war.

From the Gulf war in 1991 through to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, from Somalia in 1993 to Yemen in 2010, and through Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US military has gone to great lengths to demonstrate its strategic capacity to act in faraway places and to prove its ability to guard and advance US and Western interests.

In no time, military means and out-right war and occupation replaced diplomacy and international law.

In return, the Pentagon’s budget has almost doubled from the level it was before 9/11 to surpass the combined military expenditures of all the countries of the world, all under the guise of the ‘global war against terror’.

Alas, the costly failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries have demonstrated that the Muslim world is far too stubborn to be offered as a sacrifice in the pursuit of global leadership.

Tribal vs. state identities

Since then, the devastating wars of terror that have taken place in the shadows of accelerated globalisation have weakened state structures and institutions and reinforced tribal and sectarian identities. Regimes not directly affected, took preventative measures by strengthening their grip on power through increased security and tribal alliances.

The US and its regional allies have empowered and financed tribal leaders, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, to defeat unrelenting Islamist opposition or nationalist insurgencies, just as America’s enemies have tried to gain the support of tribes for their cause against the “foreigners”.

Washington followed in the footsteps of the UK, which boasts extensive experience of tribal politics in its former colonies, to arm and finance tribal leaders to fight its war in Iraq under the guise of “The Awakening” or ”The Sons of Iraq”.

Likewise in Afghanistan, where the US built on its long experience with the northern tribes in the 1980s to regain the initiative against the Soviet supported regime in Kabul.

In the process, salient – and not so salient – tribal power has been empowered in all the areas of conflict in the ‘Greater Middle East’ by undemocratic leaders. Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Palestine and, even failed states like Afghanistan and Somalia, have witnessed the emergence of tribal loyalties and power.

But the failure of the US and its allies to attain stability – let alone to declare victory – has slowly but surely transformed the political landscape into a coalition of tribes or ‘a warrior ruling tribe’ over many.

‘Sons of America’

This transformation was not limited to the Middle East. Compromised by globalisation and market diktats, the most modern countries, such as the US, just like the least modern, such as Yemen, are increasingly acting in primordial ways and means.

As their sovereignty is compromised by multinational corporate decisions, capital, labour and investment movements, as well as communication and cultural globalisation, many states make up for their diminishing role over their economy and culture through alternative means of collective identities such as rallying their people around the flag.

With the advent of 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’, anger, humiliation and fear nudged the US into wars of ‘shock and awe’, revenge, torture, and rendition – stripping their ‘enemy-combatants’ of their very humanity in far away prisons.

The politics of fear engineered by cynical racism and nationalism drove wars that have compromised traditional republican values and civil liberties just as its wars of choice undermined its ‘social contract’ and whipped US citizens into a collective frenzy.

In short, the United States of America, the most powerful and advanced liberal democracy, began acting as the most aggressive of all the world’s tribes. And although much of this change was engineered by the Bush administration under the fog of the ‘war on terror’, Barack Obama’s election has defused war criticism, diminished the ‘peace movement’ and once again united the country under the flags of war.

In the process, tribal loyalty replaced patriotism, revenge superseded legality, and “you’re either with US or against us” wrecked international solidarity and even sympathy with the US after the 9/11 attacks.

War without end

As asymmetrical warfare takes up the fight from conventional wars, battles are replaced by bombings and massacres, military bases by hideouts and remote control rooms, population control and policing by propaganda and terror, and national borders are surpassed by new fault lines passing through every minor Middle Eastern state and every major Western city.

As Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis volunteer to fight and even die on behalf of their cause and collective identities, against corrupt autocratic regimes, demoralised soldiers and private contractors with fancy gear, who do you think wins at the end of the day?

Before you answer, consider two important lessons of asymmetrical war that have been ignored in the sweeping post-9/11 transformation.

Firstly, in the long term, loyalty, kinship, sacrifice and a sense of justice and belonging is more potent than firepower.

Secondly, “he who fights terrorists for any period of time is likely to become one himself”.

All of which begs for a change in the whole paradigm of the ongoing ‘global war on terror’ that holds entire populations hostage to fear and war.

To be continued …

REF: Al jazeera