The Lavon Affair refers to a widespread political scandal in Israel that followed an Israeli covert operation in Egypt known as Operation Suzannah. It led to the resignation of several Israeli officials and politicians, and ultimately to the retirement of David Ben-Gurion from active political life.
It became known as the Lavon Affair or cryptically as the Unfortunate Affair (Hebrew: העסק הביש HaEsek HaBish), after the Israeli defense minister Pinchas Lavon, who was forced to resign because of the incident.
Operation Suzannah was initiated by the chief of Israel's army intelligence, Colonel Benyamin Gibli, to disrupt British plans to withdraw from the Suez Canal in accordance with the treaty signed between the two countries. The Israeli government feared that such a withdrawal would remove a moderating effect on Nasser's military ambitions, especially toward Israel.
Operatives had been recruited several years before, when the Israeli intelligence officer Avram Dar arrived in Cairo under a British cover. He had recruited several Egyptian Jews who had previously been active in illegal emigration activities and trained them for covert operations.
The plan called for bombing British and American facilities in Egypt in order to demonstrate the "irresponsibility" of the Egyptian government. The bombings took place during July of 1954 and consisted of homemade devices, mostly firebombs. They did little damage to the targets and caused no injuries or deaths. Among the targets were post office buildings, movie theaters and United States Information Services at consulates in Cairo and Alexandria. Egyptian authorities arrested one suspect, Robert Dassa, when a weapon accidentally ignited in his pocket. Having searched his apartment, they found incriminating evidence and names of accomplices to the operation. Several suspects were arrested, including Egyptian Jews and undercover Israelis.
Israeli authorities reacted with outrage at the accusation, though there was much uncertainty among senior officials as it came to light that the operation had been authorized by Colonel Dar. The trial against those arrested lasted until January 27, 1955, when two of the accused (Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar) were condemned to execution by hanging, and the rest received lengthy prison terms. Two suspects had committed suicide in prison, and another (Israeli agent Avraham Seidenberg alias Paul Frank) had managed to escape.
The trial was criticized as a show trial, and there were allegations of torture against suspects.
In meetings with prime minister Moshe Sharett, secretary of defense Pinchas Lavon denied any knowledge of the operation. When intelligence chief Gibli contradicted Lavon, Sharrett commissioned a board of inquiry consisting of Israeli Supreme Court Justice Isaac Olshan and the first chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Ya'akov Dorithat that was unable to find conclusive evidence that Lavon had authorized the operation. Lavon tried to fix the blame on Shimon Peres, who was the secretary general of the defense ministry, and Glibi for insubordination and criminal negligence. Sharett resolved the dilemma by siding with Peres, after which Lavon resigned. Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion succeeded Lavon as minister of defense.
In April of 1960, a review of minutes from the inquiry found inconsistencies and possibly a fraudulent document in Gilbi's original testimony that seemed to support Lavon's account of events. During this time, it also came to light that Seidenberg (the Israeli agent running Operation Suzannah in Egypt), had committed perjury during the original inquiry. Seidenberg was also suspected of betraying the group to Egyptian authorities; though the charges were never proven, he was eventually sentenced to a jail term of 10 years. Ben-Gurion scheduled closed hearings with a new board of inquiry chaired by Chaim Cohen , a supreme court justice.
This inquiry found that the perjury indeed had been committed, and that Lavon had not authorized the operation. Sharett and Levi Eshkol tried to issue a statement that would placate both Lavon and those who had opposed him. Ben-Gurion refused to accept the compromise and viewed it as a divisive play within the Mapai party. After another investigative committee sided with the Cohen inquiry, Ben-Gurion resigned from his post as defense minister. This led to the expulsion of Lavon from the Histadrut labor union and an early call for new elections which changed the political structure in Israel.
It should be noted that the specifics of Operation Suzannah were not public at the time of the political upheaval.
While Israeli concerns about Nasser's military ambitions turned out to have some merit, Operation Suzannah and the Lavon Affair turned out to be disastrous for Israel in several ways:
- The Egyptian government used the trial as a pretext for a series of efforts to punish Egyptian Jews culminating in 1956 when, following the Suez Crisis, 25,000 Jews were expelled by Egypt and at least 1,000 ended up in prisons and detention camps.
- Israel lost significant standing and credibility in its relations with the United Kingdom and the United States that would take years to repair.
- The tactics of the operation led to deep-seated suspicion of Israeli intelligence methods that persists to this day in various conspiracy theories about agent provocateur and false flag operations authorized by Israel.
- The political aftermath caused considerable political turmoil in Israel that affected the effectiveness of its government.
Footnotes Benny Morris
, Righteous Victims
, p. 282