Coming Clean: Why Israeli Military Intelligence Set Bombs in Egypt — Still a Blurry Truth

The IDF archives released dozens of previously secret documents, which shed new light on a tragic operation in Egypt in the 1950’s and may solve an enigma.

[This article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for The Jerusalem Post.]

For nearly 61 years, Israel has been plagued by an unsolved intelligence and political mystery: The case of a sabotage and espionage network of agents it operated in Egypt.

The agents were exposed and arrested in July 1954; two of them were sentenced to death by hanging by military tribunal and six of their accomplices were locked up for long prison sentences. On Monday, the IDF archives released dozens of never before published documents, which shed new light on the tragic operation and may solve the enigma.

At the heart of the matter is a central question: Who gave the instructions and was responsible for the operation: then-defense minister Pinhas Lavon or Col. Benjamin Gibli, head of the Military Intelligence?

The purpose of activating the Egyptian agents – young and idealistic members of Jewish Zionist groups – was to use them to plant bombs in British and U.S. cultural centers and theaters in Cairo and Alexandria.

Perhaps Israel's most notorious defense minister, Pinhas Lavon (left) chatting with Gen. Moshe Dayan. Behind them is Shimon Peres, in 1954. (IDF/Government Press Office)

Perhaps Israel’s most notorious defense minister, Pinhas Lavon (left) chatting with Gen. Moshe Dayan. Behind them is Shimon Peres, in 1954. (IDF/Government Press Office)

The logic behind the operation was to try to smear the Egyptian regime of president Abdel Gamal Nasser and to portray it as unreliable and untrustworthy in the eyes of Washington and London. The operation, codenamed Susanna, failed. Israel was sucked into a black hole of mutual accusations, its top echelon trying to deflect the responsibility and placing the blame on each other.

The most dramatic document of the newly released materials is a transcript of a meeting in December 1954, five months after the operation, between Lavon and Gibli. In the conversation, Lavon accused Gibli of ordering the operation to be activated without his approval.

Gibli tried to defend himself by arguing that the defense minister gave the order.

According to the document, the defense minister warned Gibli not to complicate matters.

Gibli: “Maybe I’m already implicated.”

Lavon: “Don’t get further implicated.”

Gibli: “There’s still no sentence by hanging in Israel.”

Later, Gibli tried to convince his superior that he had been given the go-ahead to activate the operation in a meeting prior to its implementation.

Lavon immediately replied: “That meeting took place not before, but after, when you already had knowledge that the affair was over. I did not know. You did.”

At that moment, Gibli muttered six words: “Okay, I will accept this ruling.” This was the closest the mystery has ever come to being resolved.

However, Gibli later denied his responsibility, and in several commissions of inquiry, he repeated that he had acted under Lavon’s order.

The political ricochet of this affair resulted eventually in the resignation of David Ben-Gurion as prime minister, haunted the Israeli public discourse, and left open the tactical questions of what had really happened.

It begged the biggest question on a strategic level – namely the stupidity of Israeli decision-makers (whoever was behind it), to believe that setting of a series of home-made bombs in public spaces would actually change the course of Middle East history.

Nevertheless, history will probably never know for sure who was really responsible for this operation – even Gibli’s supposed confession, as recorded in the newly released transcript, does not reveal the truth. Gibli died, at age 88, in 2008.  Lavon had died, at age 71, in 1976.

May 11, 2015

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