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50 Years On, Lavon Affair Still Sparks Public Debate in Israel

July 21, 2004
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Israeli military historians call it Operation Shoshana. Scholars of political intrigue know it as the Lavon Affair. But to veterans of Israel’s first — and perhaps worst — intelligence bungle, the 50-year-old episode whose unseemly details are only now being discussed openly has another name: the Raw Deal.

It was 1954, and the fledgling Jewish state watched with worry as Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser made clear his goal of nationalizing the Suez Canal after decades of British control. Knowing that Nasser planned to turn Egypt’s frequent blockade of Israeli shipping into a permanent policy, Israeli spy masters set about finding a way to keep British forces in charge.

Within weeks, an Israeli military intelligence unit known by its code-number, 131, recruited nine young Egyptian Jews to stage terrorist attacks that, they thought, would be blamed on local insurgents and would discredit Nasser’s rule.

Seen as a potenti! al bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East, Nasser enjoyed the quiet backing of the United States. But Israel wanted to prevent Washington from becoming too friendly with the Cairo junta, which was spearheading Arab hostility to the Jewish state.

The Egyptian Jewish spy cell firebombed American-linked sites — libraries, post offices, cinemas — in Cairo and Alexandria, causing some consternation but no casualties.

And then the plot backfired, literally. A bomb exploded in the pocket of one of the recruits, Philip Natanzon, before he could plant it in an Alexandria movie house, setting his clothes on fire in the middle of the bustling port city.

Arrested and brutally interrogated, Natanzon led Egyptian police to his accomplices. Two cell leaders were hanged, another committed suicide before trial and six agents received lengthy prison terms.

“It was as if our lives had ended, but we continued to have faith the ordeal would not last,” Marcelle Nin! io, who got a 15-year sentence, said in an Intelligence Corps document ary that was broadcast in Israel last March after a 50-year military censorship order on the case expired.

That faith survived — despite the jailhouse beatings, even despite Israel’s failure to demand that its spies be released as part of prisoner exchanges with Egypt after the 1956 Suez Campaign and the 1967 Six Day War.

What was more hurtful was Israel’s refusal to take responsibility for Ninio, Natanzon and their accomplices, who had undergone secret military training in Tel Aviv before the mission.

Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon resigned over the scandal, which took on his name. The spies were denied any public reckoning or recognition well after they went free and resettled in Israel.

Last month, their long-suffering silence ended.

It began when Binyamin Givli, head of Israeli military intelligence during the Lavon Affair, gave his first press interview.

Steely despite his age, Givli told Channel Two television that Lavon had initiated the mi! ssion. The retired general dismissively described the spies as “a bunch of Jewish youngsters with a smattering of ideology, a bit of motivation to do something for the State of Israel.”

The family of the late Lavon was outraged, accusing Givli of maligning the dead. But the five surviving spies — Natanzon had passed away of natural causes — finally saw a chance to fight back.

“Givli overlooks the fact that we were soldiers in active service who were dispatched by the State of Israel. We went through the officers’ course, were mobilized and were sent to carry out a mission in enemy territory,” fumed Robert Dasa, who, like Ninio, got a 15-year sentence.

“Givli was the architect, the planner and the initiator of that humiliating mission,” Dasa told Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper. “He preferred for us to remain in prison rather than have our voices heard.”

Through back-channel contacts with Cairo in the late 1960s, then-Mossad chief Meir Amit eventually secure! d the early release of Ninio, Dasa, Natanzon and Victor Levy. Two othe r spies, Meir Zafran and Meir Meyuchas, already had served out shorter sentences.

But another man had escaped Egypt long before without ever seeing the inside of a prison. According to Israeli intelligence veterans who spoke to JTA, he holds a key to the strange and sustained silence around the Lavon Affair.

He was Avri Elad, a military intelligence agent who recruited the spies and directed their bombing campaign. Most experts now agree that he also was the man who betrayed the spies to Egyptian police — most likely, by tipping them off about when Natanzon was to arrive at the targeted cinema.

Born Avraham Seidenwerg in Germany, Elad fled with his family to Palestine before Hitler’s rise to power. After Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Elad’s “Aryan” looks and flawless German drew the attention of Israeli military intelligence.

Elad was sent to Germany, where he penetrated the ranks of former SS officers, one of whom hired him to handle business deals in Eg! ypt.

Elad led an expensive life in Cairo, something his Tel Aviv superiors forgave given the natural stresses of his subterfuge. But after the Egyptian spy ring was cracked in 1954, Elad did the unthinkable — he stuck around, for two weeks, to get a good price on his car before decamping for Europe.

A few years later, the Mossad learned that Elad had been in regular contact with Osman Nuri, a former Egyptian intelligence chief then serving as Cairo’s ambassador to Germany.

“Working back, it was obvious Elad’s treachery had begun in Cairo, with selling out the spies to the local authorities,” the retired intelligence operative said.

But Israel lacked evidence and, just as importantly, feared that exposing Elad would harm national morale. So counterintelligence investigators from the Shin Bet security service lured the renegade agent back to Tel Aviv, where he was tried by a closed-door tribunal for the relatively minor crime of “unauthorized contacts” wi! th Nuri and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.

In Egypt, meanwhil e, a wave of anti-Semitic reprisals joined with anti-Zionist feeling to help drive the ancient Jewish community out of the country — it now numbers around 80 people, down from 35,000 before the affair broke — bolstering Nasser’s iron-fisted regime and hostility to Israel.

“After Lavon, anyone who got the chance to serve joined the security organs” in Egypt, former Nasser comrade Khaled Mohieddin told Reuters, adding that the plot “united the people” of Egypt.

Elad, who denied any wrongdoing in the Lavon Affair, died in Los Angeles in 1993 after publishing a self-exonerating memoir. More than a decade later, the five surviving Egyptian spies, and Natanzon’s widow, have asked the Education Ministry to incorporate the episode into the history syllabus of Israeli high schools.

The ministry said it would pass the request to the professional educational committees that meet on the syllabus before every school year, but experts said the fog of contradiction, suspic! ion and recrimination that still surrounds the scandal would make it difficult to determine the facts.

“It is hard to believe that there were those in the political or military echelons who believed that by planting improvised bombs in public buildings in Egypt it would be possible to shake the regime there and drive a wedge between Gamal Abdel Nasser and the West,” Ha’aretz correspondent Yossi Melman said. “We may be condemned never to know the truth: Who gave the order?”

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