Amos Harel
November 11, 2009 - 1:00am

Fifty-five years after the notorious failure of an Israeli sabotage operation in Egypt, Military Intelligence has finally gotten around to figuring out what went wrong. The answer? Pretty much everything.

An educational presentation about the 1954 Lavon affair prepared by the MI history and heritage division found that MI had not sufficiently trained the members of the sabotage unit, who were mostly amateurs and included several Egyptian Jews, and had failed to give them cover stories, plan escape routes or otherwise plan for the possibility that they would be caught.

"First and foremost, this is the story of the failure of Military Intelligence, starting with the choice of targets for the network's sabotage operations, the operational planning and the superficial and sloppy training, and ending with the method of execution, which totally failed to carry out the pointless mission, which had no chance of reaching the strategic goal its operators had set: the cancellation of the planned British evacuation of the Suez Canal," stated the MI analysis.

The Lavon affair - also known locally as esek habish, "the rotten business" - was a plan to discredit Egypt's government, then headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, by bombing theaters, post offices and U.S. and British institutions, and making it seem as though Egypt was behind the bombings. The thinking in Israel at the time was that if the British were to give up control of the Suez Canal, it would be left in Egypt's hands, putting Cairo in a better position to exert pressure on Israel.

The agents were told "to undermine the West's trust in the [Egyptian] government by causing public insecurity" while concealing Israel's role in the sabotage.

However, the agents were caught. One committed suicide in prison, two were hanged and four got long prison terms.

Only in 1968 were the prisoners exchanged for Egyptian POWs - a time lag the MI analysis attributes to internal bickering and a preoccupation with assigning blame.

"The intelligence community heads' evasion of responsibility for the operation, like the internal preoccupation with the question of who among the leaders of the political establishment gave the order, led to the fact that over many years, no effort was made to get the 'rotten affair' prisoners released," the analysis found.

Code-named Operation Susannah, the incident led to the dismissal of Binyamin Gibli, the MI chief at the time, and the resignations of then-defense minister Pinhas Lavon and ultimately, the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. In the years after the incident came to light, public debate centered around the question of who gave the order for the operation to go forward.

The educational presentation, which met with harsh criticism when it was distributed to the MI units in September, states that although at least six external committees investigated the incident, the mistakes had never before been investigated and analyzed within MI, the institution responsible for the operation.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017