We learned a few new facts as a result of the IDF Archives’ decision to publish on Thursday, via the Defense Ministry, hitherto secret documents about the Lavon Affair. Maybe the most surprising is that the IDF General Staff was only briefed about the espionage fiasco three months after it happened.
On November 1, 1954, at a meeting of the General Staff, the two main heroes of the affair – the chief of the General Staff, Maj.-Gen. Moshe Dayan, and the head of Military Intelligence, Col. Binyamin Gibli – reported on what happened in Egypt.
According to the meetings’ protocol that has just been revealed and which carries the classification level of Top Secret, Dayan said that “it is certain that we had here one of the most difficult incidents ever. Not only politically, that we wanted to conduct an operation and it failed; but also that these people will spend many years in prison.”
Dayan was mistaken in his estimations. Dr. Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, two members of the sabotage network recruited by Israeli intelligence who were arrested in Egypt, were sentenced to death and executed by hanging on January 31, 1955.
The rest of the members of the network were sentenced to long prison terms.
The IDF chief said there was no need for the General Staff to investigate the failure of the unit that operated the network – Military Intelligence’s Unit 131. “I don’t believe that this is the job of this table to investigate if the operation was justified or not,” he said.
Dayan explained that the goal of the operation was to reverse the British government’s decision to evacuate its military bases on the Suez Canal, after the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, ordered its nationalization.
“The goal was to disrupt the evacuation of Suez,” emphasized Dayan, “by actions that will be seen as if they were ordered by the Egyptians and will create tensions between England and Egypt.”
The Lavon Affair, which is also known as “The Affair,” “The Unfortunate Affair” and “The Bad Business,” was one of the most severe political and intelligence scandals in the history of the State of Israel.
It began on July 16, 1954, when a detonator in network member Phillip Natanson’s pocket went off prematurely, and was set on fire. Natanson was meant to put it in a movie theater in Alexandria.
He was arrested.
Egyptian police and security services then arrested 100 Jews, 13 of whom were suspected of being part of the network that worked in Cairo and Alexandria. They were convicted by a military court of sabotage, transferring information and destabilizing the regime.
In response to a question from Col. Yitzhak Rabin, Gibli said that “the guys confessed, and they have been connected directly to Israeli intelligence. Most of the network is down.”
Dayan added to this that “the Israeli government will deny that, but only for external consumption.”
According to Gibli’s report at the meeting: “In Alexandria and Cairo we had, for two years, three operations and sabotage squads. Most of them are Egyptian Jews who were brought over to Israel for training from six months to one year, and then returned to Egypt. The training was intensive, with emphasis on special sabotage issues, handling radio equipment and more.
“The plans that they carried out covered targets in Egypt: post offices, movie theaters and the American Library in Alexandria.”
Regarding the operational order that was transmitted to the network members, he said that “as far as I know, it was received in distorted form.”
Gibli also claimed that he received the order to carry out the operation from the defense minister, Pinhas Lavon. The prime minister at the time was Moshe Sharett, after David Ben-Gurion temporarily retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker. Dayan, who was in the United States during the network’s operation, claimed in the discussion that he did not know about the order to operate, something which strengthened Gibli’s assertion that the order came directly from Lavon to him.
Lavon, who did not attend the General Staff meeting, denied at every opportunity that he had given Gibli the order to operate in Egypt.
The issue of “Who gave the order?” has not been resolved to this very day.
For years, the Military Censor restricted publishing the details of the affair, and in the media it was only hinted at by nicknames. Later, the head of the Mossed, Isser Harel, suspected that the network was compromised by its operator, Maj. Avri Elad (Avraham Seidenwerg) from Unit 131, whom the media could only refer to as “The Third Man,” or “X.”
Elad, who managed to leave Egypt without any trouble after the network was exposed, was sent away from Israel in order to keep him quiet, and was appointed as El Al’s representative in Germany.
Because of Harel’s stubbornness, Elad was summoned to Israel and arrested.
He insisted he had not handed over the network to the Egyptians. He was eventually convicted of being in contact with a foreign agent, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. During the inquiry, he said that Gibli and the commander of Unit 131, Mordechai Ben-Zur, ordered the creation of forged documents and made him give false statements so that the blame would fall on Lavon.
A few years later, in 1958, Gibli aspired to be promoted to major-general and be appointed as head of the IDF Central Command. However, chief of staff Maj.-Gen.
Haim Laskov, who had succeeded Dayan, opposed the appointment, and wrote to defense minister Ben-Gurion: “Col. Gibli has a bad reputation in the IDF, and as long as his name is not cleared by evidence, it will be an obstacle to his promotion.”
Gibli’s name was not cleared, and in 1961 he retired from the IDF after attorney-general Haim Cohen advised him to do so.
Lavon died in 1976, and Gibli died in 2008.
There is no new information in these documents; no secrets that have not already appeared in articles and books. Therefore the question that should be asked is, why did the IDF Archives decide to release them now, and not, say, two decades ago? Translated by Udi Shaham