Election Chronicles > Elections > 1961 Elections

1961 Elections

 

Elections for the fifth Knesset were held less than two years after elections for the fourth Knesset. The atmosphere was one of crisis, with David Ben Gurion having resigned as prime minister in late January 1961 after a ministerial commission (the "Commission of Seven") ruled that Lavon was not guilty of the "unfortunate affair" – a botched operation of an Israeli espionage and guerilla network in Egypt. Days later the Mapai caucus demoted Pinchas Lavon from his position as General Secretary of the Histadrut, in fact expelling him from the party. Ben Gurion was convinced that he would be able to rebound and form a new government, but encountered unforeseen difficulties posed by his coalition partners: Ahdut Haavodah refused to be part of a new government under Ben Gurion without renewed mandate from the electorate. Mapam and the Progressive party followed suit. Mapai tried to float a government under the leadership of Levi Eshkol, but it appeared to be too late and Mapai concluded that elections had to be called. 

In addition to the political and coalition-related circumstances, and beyond the personal conflict between Ben Gurion, Lavon and various factions in Mapai, the 1961 elections invoked broader questions with regard to fundamental questions of ethical governmental practice in the State of Israel. There were issues of great import at the heart of the public debate, even if part of some of the details were not known to the public, especially with regard to the "unfortunate affair" and the individuals involved. Among the issues that arose in 1961 were supervision of the security forces, distribution of roles and responsibilities among the various security forces and between these, the government and the authorities, i.e. the Knesset. Another central question was who would investigate failures of the operational ranks and whether investigations of this kind should be internal or external-legal. The questions pertaining to the ethics of government and division of responsibilities among various authorities that arose in the run-up to the 1961 elections have remained profound questions in the State of Israel ever since.
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The "Unfortunate Affair"
Elections for the sixth Knesset took place in the shadow of what became known as "the affair" or the "unfortunate affair" – a failed sabotage operation that Israel attempted to carry out in Egypt, by means of a network of agents recruited from among the young members of the Egyptian Jewish community. The agents were recruited by the Israeli military intelligence and were part of Unit 131 which was responsible at the time for espionage in Arab countries. Cells such as these were designed for active service on the enemy front during wartime, and were to remain dormant until then. In June 1954, Avri Elad was made responsible for operation of the network.
 
In the meanwhile, concerns had arisen in Israel regarding Britain's intention of withdrawing its troops from the Suez Canal. A plan was formulated by Israeli military intelligence to carry out a series of acts of sabotage in Egypt, passing the attacks off as the work of an Egyptian nationalist movement. Israel sought thus to disrupt relations between Egypt and Britain, and the West. It was decided that Avri Elad's cell would be put into operation. In July 1954, members of the cell planted a bomb at a post office in Alexandria. Later they did the same at the American libraries in Cairo and Alexandria. The attacks were meant to peak on July 23, 1954, the anniversary of the Officer's Revolution in Egypt. The plan was to plant bombs at movie theaters in Cairo and Alexandria. The attack failed because of a technical problem with one of the explosive devices.

The management and operation of the cell did not meet the standards of clandestine intelligence operations in enemy territory. Division of labor was partial, the escape routes were not prepared properly, and too many people were involved in the ongoing maintenance of the dormant cell. The capture of the perpetrators of the attacks rapidly led to the exposure of the entire cell and damage to the Israeli intelligence network in Egypt. Among those arrested was Meir (Max) Bennet who was not actually a member of the cell, though he was an Israeli intelligence operative. Bennet committed suicide in Egyptian prison in December 1954 after he had been severely tortured. The trial of the network members began that same month. Two of its senior members, Dr. Moshe Marzuk and Shmuel Azar, were sentenced to death and hanged in January 1955.  Three others were sentenced to life in prison, two to seven years in prison, and Marcel Ninio was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Two were acquitted. 

The details of the affair were not revealed to the Israeli public. Prime Minister Sharett appointed the Olshan-Dori commission, which consisted of Chief Justice Yitzhak Olshan and former chief of staff Yaacov Dori. The investigation focused on the question of "who gave the order" – or who was directly responsible for putting the cell into operation. Specifically, the investigation sought to determine whether Minister of Defense Pinchas Lavon had given the order. The Olshan-Dori Commission failed to determine whether this was the case.

The affair died down for several years, until 1960. Avri Elad was put on trial on suspicion of being an Egyptian double agent. Elad claimed that the Israeli army had forged documents. In the meanwhile, Pinchas Lavon demanded that Ben Gurion absolve Elad of all suspicion. Ben Gurion refused. The question of "who gave the order" remained unanswered. Colonel Benjamin Gibli, chief of military intelligence, pointed a finger at Lavon, claiming that he had given the order verbally. The affair refused to blow over and continued to cause waves in the Israeli public and security arena.
 
The government of Israel decided to convene the Commission of Seven, comprising seven ministers and chaired by Minister of Justice Pinchas Rosen. In December 1960 the commission declared that Lavon had not given the order. Moreover, it determined that Lavon had not even been aware of the operation in Egypt. Benjamin Gibli was forced to resign from the IDF. The possibility that documents submitted to the Olshan-Dori Commission had indeed been forged, as Avri Elad had claimed, grew increasingly plausible. It was now suspected that the Commission had received false testimonies that had prevented it from ascertaining who had given the order, i.e. who was responsible for the serious failure in Egypt.

The affair stands out as a security fiasco of the highest order. Both on the operational level in terms of poor judgment, and on the decision-making level and in determining clear chain of command, management, supervision and control. Furthermore, the affair threatened to implicate Israel on the international level and damage its relations with western countries, over and above the damage done by exposing secret Israeli belligerence on Egyptian soil.
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Shavit 2 Launch
In the early morning hours of July 5, 1961, Israel launched the Shavit 2 rocket. There was significant media coverage of the event, including a picture of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and deputy minister of defense standing beside the Shavit before the launch, along with the Chief of Staff Tsvi Tzur and the Director of Rafael military industries. Ben Gurion announced with great fanfare that the Shavit 2 was designed for meteorological research.
 
The launch of the Shavit 2 was widely covered by the media both in Israel and abroad, especially given the timing – merely a month and a half before elections for the fifth Knesset. The opposition, like the press, cried election stunt. Responses came from outside the country as well and ranged from admiration for Israel's technological prowess to concern regarding the potential implications of an arms race in the Middle East. There were also suppositions regarding possible connections between the developing Israeli rocket technology and Israel's nuclear capabilities. The launch of the Shavit 2 caused a sensation in the Arab world and in July 1962 Egypt, under Nasser, successfully launched locally produced ground to ground missiles. At the beginning of 1963 it emerged that the Egyptian missile project had received assistance from German scientists and the Israeli intelligence community was divided over just how much of a threat this project posed to Israel and how it should be handled. One way or another, the launch of Shavit 2 accelerated the arms race in the Middle East.
 
Very little was known about the rocket itself. It appeared to be significantly smaller than the famous photograph had made it out to be and it could be that the test and its partial revelation were planned from the start as an act of psychological warfare. Opinions are divided regarding the launch's effect on the 1961 elections. Ben Gurion wished to portray himself to the public as an experienced leader, measures, experienced and strong, who should continue to steer the country. But Mapai actually lost ground in the elections and many were left believing that the Shavit 2 had been launched when it was as an election ploy.
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​1949 •​ 1951​ •​ ​1955 •​ 1959 •​ ​1961 •​​ 1965 •​​ ​1969 •​​ 1973 •​​ 1977 •​​ 1981

 

1984​ •​​ 1988​​​ •​​ 1992​ •​​ 1996​​ •​​ 1999​​ •​​ 2001​​ •​​​​ 2003​​ •​​​ 2006 •​​​​ 2009​​

  

 

 

Pinchas Lavon
Pinchas Lavon (1904-1976) was born in Galicia and moved to Palestine in 1929. He was among the leaders of the youth movement Gordonia and a member of the Young Zionist party. Immediately upon relocating to Palestine he became a prominent Mapai activist and served as general secretory of the Histadrut from 1949-1951. He was also minister of agriculture from 1950-1952. With Ben Gurion's first resignation from the government, Pinchas Lavon was appointed minister of defense and held this position from 1953-1955.

It was during his term as minister of defense that the "unfortunate affair" came to pass. An Israeli espionage and guerilla network that operated in Egypt, manned by Jewish-Egyptians young people, was exposed by the authorities. Two of the members were sentenced to death and the other long imprisonment. In government circle sin Israel, the question immediately arose "who gave the order?" i.e. who was responsible for operating the network in Egypt. Many blamed the minister of defense Pinchas Lavon, citing both direct and indirect evidence for this accusation. In 1955 Lavon was forced to resign although the commission of enquiry set up by Prime Minister Moshe Sharett had not determined the he was the one responsible. In consequence, Ben Gurion became minister of defense, thus returning to politics.
 
Pinchas Lavon continued to serve as secretary of the Histadrut and fought to clear his name. In time, it emerged that the IDF intelligence officers who has testified before the commission of enquiry had coordinated their testimonies and that a certain document had even been forged by the secretary of Benjamin Gibli, the Head of the Military Intelligence Directorate,, who subsequently resigned from the IDF. Even after these findings, and others that affirmed Lavon's claim that he was not responsible, even after the Commission of Seven, made up of seven ministers and led by Minister of Justice Pinchas Rosen, had ruled that Lavon had not given the order, relations remained strained between Lavon and Ben Gurion. In early 1961, on Ben Gurion's insistence, Lavon was demoted from his position as secretary of the Histadrut and forced to withdraw his name from the party's candidates list for the Knesset.
 
The battle between Pinchas Lavon and Ben Gurion and the former's efforts to expose the truth, became known as the Lavon Affair. It resulted in a conflict between Ben Gurion and Levy Eshkol in 1964, when Eshkol refused to set up a legal commission of enquiry to investigate the actions of the Commission of Seven. Ben Gurion and Eshkol clashed in the Mapai caucus and for the first time, Ben Gurion lost. Consequently, he started the Rafi party and was ousted from Mapai. Rafi ran independently in the elections for the sixth Knesset in 1965. In the meanwhile, Pinchas Lavon had reached the end of his public career, not having managed to set up a partisan alternative. His health suffered and he even became paralyzed. Pinchas Lavon died in January 1976.
פנחס לבון (1976-1904)
 

 

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​1949 •​ 1951​ •​ ​1955 •​ 1959 •​ ​1961 •​​ 1965 •​​ ​1969 •​​ 1973 •​​ 1977 •​​ 1981

 

1984​ •​​ 1988​​​ •​​ 1992​ •​​ 1996​​ •​​ 1999​​ •​​ 2001​​ •​​​​ 2003​​ •​​​ 2006 •​​​​ 2009​​

  

 

 

A Punishing Blow to Mapai
An important change in the Israeli political landscape occurred in 1961, just before the elections for the fifth Knesset. The Progressive Party, a centrist liberal party that had been established in 1948 and part of Ben Gurion's government, decided to merge with the older General Zionist Party and thus create the Liberal Party. The General Zionists had a liberal-capitalist ideology and were opposed to the Socialist leanings of Mapai. The Progressive party, on the other hand, was part of the Mapai coalition from the establishment of the state until the fourth Knesset. The merging of these two liberal parties, whose voting public were not far removed from one another (primarily immigrants from central Europe and the urban bourgeoisie) heralded the beginning of the end of Mapai's reign. Though short-lived, the Liberal Party would go on to reach an agreement with Herut and form the Herut-Liberal Bloc (GAHAL), which was the basis for the Likud party that would come to power in 1977.

In the meanwhile, the 1961 merger between the General Zionists and the Progressive Party prevented Ben Gurion from being able to form an alternative government after he resigned over internal Mapai conflicts and the "unfortunate affair". When Ben Gurion realizes that the Liberal party was going to be a fait accompli and that the Labor Alignment (Ahdut Avodah) refused to help him form a coalition, he had no recourse but to call early elections in 1961. His erstwhile coalition partners were now his rivals and the Liberal party's elections propaganda made no bones about this. "Deal Mapai a punishing blow" was the call, borrowing a soccer related turn of phrase. Fresh, up-to-date, focused and graphic propaganda declared: Mapai must be punished, kicked out.
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​1949 •​ 1951​ •​ ​1955 •​ 1959 •​ ​1961 •​​ 1965 •​​ ​1969 •​​ 1973 •​​ 1977 •​​ 1981

 

1984​ •​​ 1988​​​ •​​ 1992​ •​​ 1996​​ •​​ 1999​​ •​​ 2001​​ •​​​​ 2003​​ •​​​ 2006 •​​​​ 2009​​