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Lavon Affair

The Lavon Affair is the name given to the scandal which occupied the Israeli political system in the 1950’s, involving Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon (1904 – 1976).

The Affair began in 1954, following to a failed covert operation (the “Unfortunate Affair”): 11 Egyptian Jews were arrested on the suspicion of laying explosives in cinemas, post offices and information centers of the United States in Cairo and Alexandria. They were also suspected of sabotage in Egypt’s relations with the West, on behalf of the Israeli security services, at a time that Egypt was negotiating with Britain on withdrawal from the Suez Canal. Two of the defendants were sentenced with the death penalty and six others for prolonged jail sentences. Two of the Israeli agents were sentenced while not present in the trial.

Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, it seems, was not informed of these activities. Minister of Defense Lavon claimed he had no knowledge of it either, but the Head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, Colonel Binyamin Gibli, testified he was given the orders for the operation from Lavon. Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan also claimed the Minister of Defense as the responsible party. The Prime Minister installed a two-persons committee to investigate the chain of events, but it did not come to actual conclusions. The affair, together with differences of opinion on foreign policy, brought Lavon to resign from his post in February 1955. David Ben Gurion was reappointed to the post.

The questions raised regarding Lavon’s guilt or innocence were brought up again in 1958, during the trial of Avri Elad – a double agent claimed to be involved in the affair. Ben Gurion refused Lavon’s request to clear his name, but a cabinet committee of seven ministers found him not to be connected with the affair. This conclusion was approved by the government and was followed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s resignation, stating that the government is not capable of true justice on matters connected to political connections between parties. Following his election to the Fourth Knesset, in 1961, Ben Gurion set a condition for his appointment as Prime Minister, namely that Lavon resign from his post as Secretary General of the Histadrut.

Two years later, in 1963, Ben Gurion resigned once again in connection with the Lavon Affair. In 1964 he demanded that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol appoint an independent inquiry committee to investigate the work of the cabinet committee of 1961. Eshkol refused and in 1965 he was supported in a Mapai convention by 60% of the party’s members. Ben Gurion split from the party with a group of supporters, among them Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, and established Rafi. Lavon then retired from public life.

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