At this writing (early January), the final outcome of the Lavon affair—which three months ago triggered the most serious political crisis in the history of Israel—is still uncertain. But whatever the final outcome, one thing is already clear: Mapai, Israel’s most powerful political party, has been rocked to its very foundations. Mapai will continue to guide the destinies of the country for a long time to come, but it will never be the same. Although the Lavon affair has ostensibly involved a security matter—the probity of two army officers, and their relationship with a former Minister of Defense (Lavon himself)—the real issue being fought out is the future character of Mapai and the related question of who is to rule Israel when Ben Gurion goes into final retirement.
Since the Lavon affair originally centered on a matter of military security, certain facts of the case are still classified as secret. But a fairly detailed picture of the background can nevertheless be drawn. In December 1953, Ben Gurion, who was then acting both as Prime Minister and as Minister of Defense, retired from the government and withdrew to Sde-Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev. He was replaced in the office of Prime Minister by Moshe Sharett, while Pinhas Lavon—a man in his early fifties, ambitious, intelligent, and forceful—became Minister of Defense. In February 1955, a surprise announcement was made that Mr. Lavon had resigned from the Cabinet, that his resignation had been accepted, and that he would be succeeded in the Ministry of Defense by Ben Gurion, who had agreed to abandon his Negev retreat and return to politics.
The full story of the circumstances leading to Lavon’s resignation was not told, nor is it likely to be disclosed now. What we do know is that sometime in May 1954, a senior army officer issued an order calling for a certain action which ended in disaster.1 This action was of such importance that the officer who ordered it should only have done so with the approval of the Chief of Staff (then Moshe Dayan) or of Lavon, the Minister of Defense. The officer in question claimed that he had secured Lavon’s consent for the order (Dayan at the time was out of the country) and that he was therefore not responsible for the disaster. Lavon, on the other hand, denied ever having been consulted. In the face of these conflicting stories, Prime Minister Sharett—with the idea of keeping the matter secret, since it was embarrassing not only to the party but to the country—appointed an unofficial commission of inquiry consisting of Chief Justice Olshan and Mr. J. Dori, President of the Haifa Technion. After conducting an investigation, the committee decided that the evidence was insufficient to determine whether or not the unfortunate order had been issued with the knowledge of Lavon.
One of the witnesses who testified before the commission—so it now appears—was Shimon Peres, then Director General of the Ministry of Defense. It is not yet clear whether Peres came forward on his own initiative or at the commission’s request. But in any event Lavon surmised that Peres—who was not involved in the scandal and consequently could not throw light on the question of responsibility for the order—had given testimony aimed at proving that Lavon was generally an incompetent Minister of Defense. Presumably outraged by such disloyalty in a subordinate, Lavon informed Prime Minister Sharett that he intended to dismiss Peres (as well as the officer who had issued the disastrous order). But Sharett, upon being warned that if the two men were dismissed, Chief of Staff Dayan and other members of the High Command would resign, refused to sanction Lavon’s plan. This left Lavon with no alternative but to resign himself, which he immediately did.
After spending two years in political retirement, Lavon came back into prominence as Secretary General of the Histadrut, the all-powerful Israeli confederation of labor, which, like the government and the Knesset, is controlled by Mapai. Ben Gurion, meanwhile, had again become Prime Minister, and the 1954 scandal was apparently a closed incident. But sometime in 1959 an unexpected development took place that revived the affair and set a torch to the conflicts that had been smoldering quietly in the bosom of Mapai. An army officer being tried in camera before the Jerusalem District Court for disclosing secret information to enemy agents (he was subsequently convicted and imprisoned) testified that the senior officer who had issued the 1954 order and an associate of his had forged certain documents in order to implicate Lavon and had also committed perjury before the Olshan-Dori commission. The presiding judge of the District Court ruled that this testimony had no bearing on the case at hand, but since he was inclined to believe it, he drew it to the attention of the proper authorities.
Word of the new disclosures (despite the fact that they were confidential) soon reached Lavon, who, it turned out, had over the years been collecting other evidence himself. Armed with all this, Lavon proceeded to Ben Gurion and requested his rehabilitation. A commission of inquiry was again appointed, and it found that there was reason to believe that the senior officer who issued the 1954 order and his associate had indeed committed perjury before the Olshan-Dori commission. The Attorney General—to whom this finding was forwarded—pointed out, however, that no action could be brought against the two offending officers (one, the associate, long retired, and the other only just discharged last month), since the Olshan-Dori commission had been neither a statutory tribunal nor an official commission of inquiry, but merely an unofficial body called into being by Mr. Sharett for the purpose of advising him on certain aspects of the controversy.
After receiving the Attorney General’s opinion, the government set up a Cabinet Committee of seven to consider all the written evidence that had so far been accumulated, and on December 25 last, submitted a report which in effect cleared Lavon of all responsibility for the 1954 order. The report was approved by the government, with Ben Gurion and Messrs. Dayan, Eban, Josephthal, and Shitriet (all partisans of Ben Gurion) abstaining. After the vote was taken, however, Ben Gurion criticized the report on the ground that the Cabinet Committee had not heard oral evidence, and demanded a judical body to investigate the affair de novo. He then left the Cabinet meeting with the announcement that he intended to take a long leave of absence, and hinting that he would not return until such time as the government reversed its decision and otherwise complied with his demands.
When Ben Gurion failed to attend the next Cabinet meeting, the leadership of Mapai was thrown into confusion, which was deepened further on January 12 by Ben Gurion’s denunciation of Lavon as a slanderer and backbiter at a meeting of the Central Committee of Mapai. The party had been driven into choosing between Ben Gurion and Lavon; and as the matter now stands, any number of things may happen by the time this article reaches print. Mapai may yield to Ben Gurion and try to force Lavon out of the secretary-generalship of the Histadrut (which would not be easy to do, especially since the Foreign Minister, Golda Meir, and the Minister of Trade and Commerce, Pinhas Sapir, are partisans of Lavon); Ben Gurion may retire once again to Sde-Boker and let Mapai get on without him; or he may form a new government without Sapir and Mrs. Meir.
Why has the Lavon affair stirred up so much trouble? First of all, we must remember that Lavon resigned from the Ministry of Defense not because any blame was attached to him for the 1954 order, but because he could not secure the dismissal of Peres (who at the moment is Deputy Minister of Defense) and the senior officer who issued the order. We must also remember that it was Moshe Dayan (now Minister of Agriculture) whose threat of resignation as Chief of Staff saved Peres. Now it is a matter of common knowledge that these two young politicians, Peres and Dayan, are protégés of Ben Gurion. Lavon evidently felt that they had been conspiring in 1955 (with the aid of Ben Gurion) to eliminate him from high political office and thus pave the way for the advent to Mapai leadership of the younger generation sponsored by Ben Gurion—a group that also includes Abba Eban and Dr. Giora Josephthal. And indeed, when Lavon resigned from the Ministry of Defense in February 1955, his prospects of succeeding Ben Gurion were regarded as finished. Lavon, however, staged a political comeback through the Histadrut; and by using to the full, as Secretary General, the enormous powers of that organization, he became a national figure who could at will either advance or check the implementation of policies adopted by his fellow members of Mapai in the government and in the Knesset. In fact, he made such full use of these powers that the government began to resent the existence of the Histadrut as a state within the state. Thus the conflict between Lavon and the old party stalwarts on the one hand, and Ben Gurion and the younger set on the other, soon took on the aspects of an ideological controversy revolving around the question of whether the existence of the Histadrut as presently constituted is compatible with the normal functioning of a democratic state. This controversy, although apparently internal to Mapai, involves all parties, and because of its manifold implications, is emerging as the most important single political problem that Israel will be called upon to resolve in the next few years.
The Histadrut is a centrally controlled federation of trade unions embracing about 90 per cent of all employees, but it is also far more than that. For affiliated with it are important associations of self-employed people as well as groups of employers—i.e. the various kinds of cooperatives, both agricultural and industrial, all have large bodies of employees, often exceeding in number the members of the cooperatives themselves. In addition to the self-employed and the cooperatives, the Histadrut also includes within its ranks a managerial group which controls factories, banks, insurance companies, shipping, air transport, retail and wholesale marketing concerns, and a variety of other businesses. Thus the Histadrut is not only a trade union organization but also the single largest employer of labor and the single largest owner of capital in Israel. The trade-unionist section is by no means the dominant element within this colossus, although it supplies the Histadrut with its justification for styling itself as an “organization of workers”—that is, of employees whose interests are to be professionally protected by collective action.
As the Secretary General of Histadrut, Lavon took the position that it, rather than the government, was the custodian of the destiny of the people of Israel. The government, in his view, was only one of several instrumentalities employed by the Histadrut for carrying out its historical mission and for promoting its moral and social objectives. This ideology was naturally attractive to the vast Histadrut bureaucracy, and all the more so since office in the various arms of government has in recent years acquired greater prestige than that attached to important positions in the Histadrut. It was, indeed, to gain protection against the rising prestige of the state and against the people in whom this prestige was vested, that Lavon elaborated his ambitious ideology.
Ben Gurion, who more than anyone else personifies the state, did not hesitate to repudiate Lavon’s ideology. To Ben Gurion the Histadrut is a “partial organization”—that is, a voluntary association embracing only a part of the population and, despite its power and wealth, very little different in kind from any other voluntary association. The only organization that is not “partial,” in Ben Gurion’s view, is the state, for it represents the people as a whole, and by reason of this, the state alone must assume responsibility for the destiny of the nation and its citizenry. The supremacy of the state is limited only by the will of the electorate and the national interest.
This assertion elicited an immediate reply from Lavon: “I consider it a bitter injustice to hear that the Histadrut is placed on the same level as other ‘partial organizations’ in Israel. It is true that in the eyes of the law, the Histadrut is a partial organization, like the Farmers’ Union, Merchants’ Association, etc. But since when do we behave in accordance with formal law? We behave in accordance with an unwritten law that elevates the Histadrut, making it the one and only organization in Israel that assumes unto itself the duty of caring for the welfare of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people, and which bears the responsibility for all that happens.” Lavon went on to place the Histadrut on an equal footing with the state, from which it logically followed that “cooperation between the state and the Histadrut is not a one-way traffic; cooperation must be in a spirit of good will, mutual understanding and consideration, and mutual recognition that they jointly carry the burden of responsibility for the state and the workers.” Stripped of its rhetoric, this amounted to a declaration that the Histadrut has the right to exercise a veto or otherwise impede state action.
Lavon’s declaration (which appeared in the Histadrut-owned daily Davar) was answered on April 26, 1960, in an editorial in the English-language Jerusalem Post, a paper controlled by Mapai and loyal to Ben Gurion’s position: “[Lavon’s] contention that the state and the Histadrut are a partnership with equal rights cannot hold water at the present moment, although it might have been true some years ago. Today the state takes precedence by a long way over any public organization, for the simple reason that the state has a total responsibility towards the citizen, while all other groupings of citizens deal with one or a few aspects of public or private life only.”
The Post editorial was written at a time when the Histadrut was threatening to paralyze the entire educational system if the government should recognize the Secondary School Teachers’ Union, and the writer therefore used this incident as a way of pointing to the consequences of repudiating the principle of state supremacy: “On several occasions since the establishment of the State, valuable organizations were broken up because their leaders could not arrive at a rational relationship with the state as such . . . Now an unnecessary clash is in the offing, with the teachers’ crisis as the peg. Already, a likeable man and honest Minister has had to resign because of it. Now the whole complex of the Histadrut is in danger.” The editorial, in short—which could not have been written without Ben Gurion’s initiative—constituted both a warning and a threat to the Histadrut.
Thus two schools of thought have gradually developed within Mapai and, what is more important, two groups struggling for supremacy within the party: the Histadrut—led by Lavon and deriving its power from the vast bureaucracy and the almost unlimited financial resources of this colossus—and the state-based group—led by Ben Gurion and deriving its power from the civil service, the army, and the managers of the state-owned monopolies.
Since the Histadrut came into existence some thirty years before the State, its forces tend to be composed of the older members of Mapai whose general point of view is still pretty much shaped by the rather rigid socialist doctrines embraced by the founders of the organization. By contrast, the younger set which has now emerged under the tutelage and protection of the ever youthful Ben Gurion is on the whole skeptical of ideologies and believes strongly in the empirical approach to political problems, as well as in the state as the major instrument of social and economic initiative.
To the extent that the Histadrut is a hindrance to the development of a competitive economy, the younger set would like to see its wings clipped, so as to assure greater industrial efficiency and a climate conducive to a greater degree of free enterprise. The attainment of economic independence is a paramount objective to the younger set, while for the older generation it is acceptable only insofar as its achievement does not impair the hegemony of the Histadrut or its traditional practices. The Lavon group contends that without a powerful Histadrut, Mapai cannot remain the dominant element in the country, but the Ben Gurion faction insists that the party’s fortunes will be better served by control of the social and economic instrumentalities of the state. Consequently, it argues, some of the functions of the Histadrut—such as health insurance—should be incorporated into a comprehensive national health service, and Histadrut itself should ultimately be turned into a mere trade union. It is precisely this far-reaching intention that the older generation knows it must resist, for once the character of the Histadrut as a state within the state is undermined, the balance of power will irrevocably shift in favor of the younger set.
Many observers of the Israeli scene, while they would welcome the reduction of the Histadrut to the level of a trade union as a measure essential to the proper functioning of a democracy, still entertain serious apprehensions over the tendencies of the younger set. Devoid of any ideological preconceptions, brought up in the service of the state, and having seen how much can be done through state action, the new men struggling to succeed Ben Gurion regard the state as the source of all positive initiative and accomplishment. That such étatisme is fraught with serious danger is obvious to many sober observers, who console themselves with the reflection that so long as Ben Gurion remains at the helm, democracy will not be jeopardized in Israel. As regards the future, opinions are divided.
It is against the background of this great conflict between state power and the Histadrut that the Lavon affair ought to be assessed. Mapai today is a house divided against itself. On the personal level the conflict can be viewed as a maneuvering for position in the war of succession which will follow Ben Gurion’s final retirement; on the political level, it can be seen as a fight to the death between the principle of state supremacy and the principle of Histadrut dominance. Provided the étatist tendencies of some of the younger set are kept in check, and provided further that the present economic prosperity continues for some time, it is reasonable to anticipate the eclipse of the Histadrut, the victory of the younger set, the emergence of a new political configuration, and a consequent strengthening of the democratic process in the country.
There is, however, one consideration of a purely personal character that rules out any assurance over these predictions. The younger set cannot possibly hold its ground without Ben Gurion’s active support, and should he now withdraw from politics, his protégés would easily be crushed by the Histadrut forces. In short, the fortunes of the younger set depend on Ben Gurion’s remaining in office for another few years, until his protégés are firmly entrenched in the party hierarchy. An inconclusive solution to the present crisis will be fatal to the younger set and to the political philosophy of Ben Gurion. From their point of view, it is now or never.
1 The most common supposition is that it was a sabotage or espionage action in Cairo. The name of the senior officer in question has never been revealed.—Ed.