The Lavon Affair refers to the scandal over a failed Israeli covert operation in Egypt known as Operation Susannah, in which Israeli military intelligence bombed Egyptian, American and British-owned targets in Egypt in the summer of 1954. It became known as the Lavon Affair after the Israeli defense minister Pinhas Lavon, who was forced to resign because of the incident, or euphemistically as the Unfortunate Affair (Hebrew: העסק הביש HaEsek HaBish). Israel admitted responsibility in 2005 when Israeli President Moshe Katzav honored the nine Egyptian Jewish agents who were involved.
In the early 1950s the United States initiated a more activist policy toward Egypt often in contrast with British policies. Fearing this policy would remove a moderating effect on Egyptian President Nasser's military ambitions, especially toward Israel by encouraging Britain to withdraw its military forces from the Suez Canal, Israel first sought to influence this policy through diplomatic means but was frustrated.
In the summer of 1954 Colonel Binyamin Gibli, the chief of Israel's military intelligence, Aman, initiated Operation Suzannah in order to reverse that decision. The goal of the Operation was to carry out bombings and other acts of sabotage in Egypt with the aim of creating an atmosphere in which the British and American opponents of British withdrawal from Egypt would be able to gain the upper hand and block the withdrawal.
The top-secret cell, Unit 131, which was to carry out the operation, had existed since 1948 and under Aman since 1950. At the time of Operation Susannah, Unit 131 was the subject of a bitter dispute between Aman and Mossad over who should control it.
Unit 131 operatives had been recruited several years before, when the Israeli intelligence officer Avram Dar arrived in Cairo undercover as a British citizen of Gibraltar called John Darling. He had recruited several Egyptian Jews who had previously been active in illegal emigration activities and trained them for covert operations.
Aman decided to activate the network in the spring of 1954. On July 2, they firebombed a post office in Alexandria, and on July 14, they bombed the U.S. Information Agency libraries in Alexandria and Cairo and a British-owned theater. The homemade bombs, consisting of bags containing acid placed over nitroglycerine, were inserted into books, and placed on the shelves of the libraries just before closing time. Several hours later, as the acid ate through the bags, the bombs would explode. They did little damage to the targets and caused no injuries or deaths.
Before the group began Israeli agent Avraham Seidenberg (Avri Elad) was sent to oversee the operations. Seidenberg assumed the identity of Paul Frank, a former SS officer with Nazi underground connections. Avraham Seidenberg allegedly informed the Egyptians resulting in the Egyptian Intelligence Service following a suspect to his target, the Rio Theatre, where a fire engine was standing by. Egyptian authorities prematurely arrested this suspect, Philip Natanson, when his bomb accidentally ignited prematurely 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.
Colonel Dar and Seidenberg had managed to escape. One suspect was tortured to death in prison and Hungarian born Israeli Meir Max Bineth committed suicide. The trial began on December 11 and lasted until January 27, 1955; two of the accused (Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar) were condemned to execution by hanging and two acquitted with the rest receiving lengthy prison terms. The trial was widely criticized as a show trial, and there were allegations that evidence had been extracted by torture. 
Two of the imprisoned operatives, Meir Meyuhas and Meir Za'afran, were released in 1962, after having served seven year jail sentences. The rest were eventually freed in February 1968, in a secret addendum to a prisoner of war exchange.
Soon after the affair, Mossad chief Isser Harel expressed suspicion to Aman concerning the integrity of Avraham Seidenberg. Despite his concerns, Aman continued using Seidenberg for intelligence operations until 1956, when he was caught trying to sell Israeli documents to the Egyptians. Seidenberg was tried and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. In 1980, Harel publicly revealed evidence that Seidenberg had been turned by the Egyptians even before Operation Suzannah.
In meetings with prime minister Moshe Sharett, secretary of defense Pinhas 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, Yaakov Dori 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 Gibli for insubordination and criminal negligence. Sharett resolved the dilemma by siding with Peres, who along with Moshe Dayan testified against Lavon, after which Lavon resigned. Former prime minister David Ben-Gurion succeeded Lavon as minister of defense. A short time later, Sharett, who did not know about the operation in advance, and who had strongly denied Israel's involvement, resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by Ben-Gurion.
In April of 1960, a review of minutes from the inquiry found inconsistencies and possibly a fraudulent document in Gibli'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 Susannah were not public at the time of the political upheaval.
Operation Suzannah and the Lavon Affair turned out to be disastrous for Israel in several ways:
In March 2005, Israel publicly honored the surviving operatives, and President Moshe Katsav presented each with a certificate of appreciation for their efforts on behalf of the state, ending decades of official denial by Israel.
1. ^ a b "After half a century of reticence and recrimination, Israel ... honored ... agents-provocateur. Reuters, 30th March 2005. Accessed 2nd July 2007.
2. ^ Hahn, Peter L . United States, Great Britain, and Egypt, 1945-1956: Strategy and Diplomacy (in English). UNC Press, 187. ISBN 0807819425. “In late 1954, the Anglo-Egyptian base agreement and American plans to promote a Northern tier security arrangement generated tension between Israel and Egypt. Israeli officials feared that British troop withdrawal from the Canal zone ... would encourage Egyptial aggressiveness toward Israel and remove Western leverage to modify Egyptian behavior on issues such as Suez Canal restrictions”
3. ^ According to historian Shabtai Teveth, who wrote one of the more detailed accounts, the assignment was "To undermine Western confidence in the existing [Egyptian] regime by generating public insecurity and actions to bring about arrests, demonstrations, and acts of revenge, while totally concealing the Israeli factor. The team was accordingly urged to avoid detection, so that suspicion would fall on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, 'unspecified malcontents' or 'local nationalists'." (Ben-Gurion's Spy, Columbia University Press, 1996, p. 81)
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