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The Lavon Affair (1954)


The so-called Lavon Affair had its roots in an Israeli operation, codenamed SHOSHANA, which began in 1951. The Israelis established a network inside Egypt with the capability of attacking civil and military installations. In 1954, as pressure mounted for the British and French to turn over the Suez Canal to the Egyptians, the network -- under the leadership of Avri El-Ad -- launched a series of attacks designed to discredit the Egyptian government. Targets included the USIS libraries in Cairo and Alexandria. A failed attack in Alexandria led to the rolling up of the network. The question quickly became one of, "Who authorized the attacks on U.S. installations?" Despite denying that the order was his, Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon was forced to resign. For a brief review of this episode, see Richelson, A Century of Spies (1995), pp. 250-251.


Bar-Joseph, Uri. Intelligence Intervention in the Politics of Democratic States: The United States, Israel, and Britain. University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1995.

Clark Comment: Bar-Joseph analyzes four case studies of what he designates "intelligence intervention" in politics: the 1961 Bay of Pigs episode; the 1954 Israeli "Unfortunate Business" or "Lavon Affair"; and the 1920 "Henry Wilson" and 1924 "Zinoviev Letter" affairs in Britain. The author's comparative approach may prove to be heavy going for the casual reader, but the politicization issue is certainly one that deserves serious study. However, as Brody, PSQ 111.3, observes, the intervention in the Lavon and Wilson affairs was at least arguably "as much by the military as by intelligence."

According to Wirtz, APSR 90.1, the "tension created by th[e] effort to offer timely estimates while overcoming incentives to pander to policymakers ... serves as a point of departure for Uri Bar-Joseph's comparative study.... Bar-Joseph is especially interested in situations in which intelligence agencies spiral out of control and undertake unauthorized activities that overstep policy bounds.... The potential contribution made by Intelligence Intervention to developing a theory of civil-intelligence relations, however, is limited by several shortcomings in execution and conception." Nevertheless, this "ambitious book ... does a fine job in identifying several factors which affect the willingness and ability of intelligence officials to place their preferences into the policy arena."

Warren, Surveillant 4.3, declares that "this book is mandatory reading" for serious students of intelligence: "Bar-Joseph sets the stage historically and then fits his argument onto the stage with logic and even wit." Writing in the CIRA Newsletter, Fall 1996, Warren adds that this is "an important contribution to the continuing dialogue on the politicization of intelligence and intelligence organizations." Stafford, I&NS 11.2, judges the book to be "impressively researched and written." The work "is most likely to provoke discussion through its argument that at the root of the abuses [the author] describes lies insufficient separation between intelligence and politics."

For Clutterbuck, Political Studies 44.4, Bar-Joseph "gives an excellent analysis of how these abuses of power occurred and argues that a high degree of professionalism in the intelligence services is as important as effective political control in preventing them." Friedman, Parameters, Summer 1997, finds that "Intelligence Intervention is presented in a detailed but often humorous manner that makes for an entertaining as well as an educational experience."


El-Ad, Avri, with James Creech, III. Decline of Honor. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1976.

  • Pforzheimer notes that "the failure and exposure of the [Lavon] operation created government crises in Israel for some years." According to Constantinides, El-Ad certainly "has [the] credentials to speak on the case," but his "partisan and emotional involvement" make deferral of judgment wise.


Golan, Aviezer. Operation SUSANNAH: As Told by Marcelle Ninio, Victor Levy, Robert Dassa and Philip Nathanson. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

  • Constantinides notes that "[m]ost of this book is devoted to the prison experiences of the net's members," but there are about 100 pages of discussion of the operation. He finds that "[m]any things about this version ... are unsatisfactory." The author gives little attention to the issue of who ordered the operation.


Joffe, Lawrence. "Israeli Spy Had Key Role in Scandal." Canberra Times, 18 Sep. 2008. []

"As director of Israeli military intelligence [Aman] from mid-1950 to early 1955, Binyamin Gibli, who has died aged 89, was a key player in what was arguably his country's most debilitating political scandal, the Lavon affair. He was responsible for initiating an illicit campaign of bombing and sabotage against Western targets in Egypt [Operation Shoshana], and, having been forced to resign, later admitted having forged documents that falsely implicated his boss, the Israeli defence minister, Pinhas Lavon, in the plot.


Talmon, J.L., and Ze'er Katz. "The Lavon Affair -- Israeli Democracy at the Crossroads." New Outlook 4 (Mar.-Apr. 1961): 23-32. [Calder]


Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion's Spy: The Story of the Political Scandal that Shaped Modern Israel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

  • For Cohen, FA 75.5, "Teveth pushes some of his conclusions a bit further than the evidence may warrant ... but he tells the story with skill." This is an "authoritative" and "powerful rendering of how clever politicians can conduct amazingly stupid and destructive secret policies."

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