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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Israel Goes Extremist

This time, they've gone too far

Over the years, as the actions of the Israeli government have become more extreme – and less concerned with international public opinion – very little of what Israel's leaders say or do seems all that surprising. Invading the West Bank and Gaza, demolishing peoples' homes, defying the U.S. on the settlements issue as they angle for more "foreign aid" from the clueless Americans – even running over people with tanks! – it all makes a twisted kind of sense, given the fanatical nationalism that motivates Israel's partisans both here and in Palestine. (A fanaticism, I might add, that flourishes on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) Yet, even amid all this emotional and political hysteria, the Israelis have often exhibited an admirable pragmatism: they were willing to make concessions (or not) depending on Israel's national security needs at the time. Sharon's "strategic disengagement" plan – in spite of being compromised by all sorts of hemming, hawing, and hedging – is a good example of this commonsense approach.

How, then, do we explain the Israeli government's recent decision to honor nine of its agents arrested and jailed in the infamous Lavon affair?

To understand how inexplicably sinister this is, a little history lesson is in order. The year was 1952, and a young colonel had just come to power in Egypt proclaiming a doctrine of pan-Arab nationalism. The United States, eager to make inroads – and new friends – in the Middle East, was supportive: the corrupt King Farouk was a dubious character, at best, and the spirit of a new populism that was non-threatening to U.S. interests and secular seemed to be breaking out all over. Yet Israel did indeed feel threatened, and acted at once to sever growing links between the Americans and the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was pressuring the British to leave Egypt, and David Ben Gurion – founding prime minister of the Jewish state, then temporarily out of office – was determined to change the American outlook on the Middle East by any means necessary, including terrorism. When diplomatic approaches failed, by the summer of 1954 Ben Gurion was ready to move: a network of underground cells was set up in Egypt's major cities that would carry out attacks on American and British targets. The idea was to make it look like the Egyptians did it, and the West would turn against Nasser. It was, in short, a "false flag" operation. Dubbed "Operation Susannah" as a tribute to the wife of one of the spies, the terrorist campaign was to be triggered when the agents heard "Oh, Susannah" played on Israeli radio.

On July 2, 1954, the Alexandria post office was firebombed. On July 14, the U.S. Information Agency offices in Alexandria and Cairo were set afire by phosphorus incendiary devices; a British-owned theater was also hit. According to Alfred M. Lilienthal's 1980 book, The Zionist Connection:

"Small bombs shaped like books and secreted in book covers were brought into the USIA libraries in both Alexandria and Cairo. Fish skin bags filled with acid were placed on top of nitroglycerin bombs; it took several hours for the acid to eat through the bag and ignite the bomb. The book bombs were placed in the shelves of the library just before closing hours. Several hours later a blast would occur, shattering glass and shelves and setting fire to books and furniture. Similar bombs were placed in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Theater and in other American owned business buildings."

All seemed to be going according to plan, but there was just one problem: the Israeli spy ring had itself been infiltrated by the Egyptian intelligence service. The terrorists' own Israeli handler, Avraham Seidenberg (alias Paul Frank), had betrayed them to the Egyptians. That's how the Egyptians knew what Philip Nathanson was up to as he made his way to a designated target in Alexandria with a bomb in his pocket: a fire engine was already waiting in front of the theater! Never was a more ill-starred conspiracy conceived: as Nathanson approached his target, the bomb in his pocket went off, injuring but not killing its bearer.

Nathanson was taken into custody and confessed the whole plot, which led to more arrests. The public trial of the Israeli spies – in which every detail of their terrorist training in Israel was revealed – set off a series of crises in the Israeli government that reverberated for years. Ben Gurion and Israel's military intelligence chieftain, Benjamin Givli, tried to pass off the blame on then Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, offering forged documents as proof. Ben Gurion won the first round of the blame game, but later on the truth came out, and in 1960, a committee of seven Cabinet members cleared Lavon of responsibility. Ben Gurion, however, rejected this, and effectively resigned as prime minister.

The question is – why did the Israeli government decide to honor a gang of terrorists, which it has studiously avoided acknowledging for some 50 years? Why now – and why so in-your-face?

Tel Aviv, and its amen corner in the U.S., kept telling us after 9/11 that Israel is America's staunchest ally in the fight against terrorism – and yet now they are hailing as "heroes" a coven of terrorists trained by themselves. What gives?

This is part and parcel of the growing pattern of extremism that seems to be imprinting itself on every aspect of Israeli life, one that has not gone entirely unnoticed in the Western media. PBS ran a fascinating documentary the other day, positing that Israel's next war may be against its own ultra-Zionist fanatics, who are intent on sabotaging the peace process and instituting an authoritarian-militarist state. The powerful and motivated extreme-right wing of the ruling Likud party refuses to give up the original Zionist dream of a "Greater Israel." I have covered the alarming uptick in extremist activity, both in Israel and the U.S., in this space, but the "honoring" of a terrorist gang by the Israeli government frightens the bejesus out of me – especially in view of the Israeli government's recent announcement that they will be carrying out assassinations wherever and whenever they choose, including on American soil.

On presenting the three survivors and the families of the deceased with official citations, Israeli Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon averred, "This is historic justice for those who were sent on a mission on behalf of the state and became the victims of a complex political affair." Justice? What about justice for the victims of those bombs, which exploded in a post office, a couple of movie theaters, and the American library in Cairo? I guess they don't count.

Robert Dassa, one of the surviving terrorists, was grateful for the recognition and cited the passionately expressed wish of his deceased comrades that the Israeli government would finally acknowledge their existence, but according to the Jerusalem Post, he still wasn't entirely happy: "He still had one wish, he said – for the true story, untainted by politics, to be taught in Israeli schools."

Taught in Israeli schools – as what? As an example of a completely immoral and inexcusable exercise in fanaticism and outright savagery – or a heroic act that deserves to be honored by Israeli government officials and held up as an act of supreme patriotism, to be emulated by Israeli youth?

An Israel unrepentant about its brutal history of repression against the Palestinians may be reprehensible, but is at least understandable to some extent: but this ceremonial tribute to terrorists whose targets were American and British civilians is downright weird. What are the Israelis thinking? It's as if the government of, say, Lebanon, were to announce that they were honoring the suicide bomber who killed 241 Americans in the 1983 terrorist attack in Beirut on the Marine barracks.

It's funny how many conservatives – and especially the neoconservatives – have their antennae quivering at the least hint of "anti-Americanism" or anti-Western sentiment, and yet so far I've heard not one peep out of anyone on the American Right about this outrageously and viciously anti-American display. Surely this is an oversight that will shortly be corrected – or is it? With their unconditional support for even the most outrageous Israeli demands, their knee-jerk denunciations of even the most mild criticism of Israel as "anti-Semitism," and their open resentment of the Bush administration's pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to stop building settlements, perhaps this is one form of anti-Americanism they can get behind.

Justin Raimondo


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