Col. Binyamin Gibli took his secrets with him to the next world when he died this week – unless, as historian Tom Segev forlornly hopes, the old spookmaster left instructions to publish the ghost-written manuscript of his autobiograhy, and it explains what really happened in the Dirty Business of the 1950s. The hope is forlorn because it presumes that we would have reason to trust Gibli’s version.
Gibli was the head of Military Intelligence back in 1954, when MI recruited a handful of Egyptian Jews to bomb American and British cultural centers and other places frequented by foreigners in Egypt. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The idea was that the attacks would look like Egyptian fury against the West, and would derail any improvement in relations between Western governments and Cairo. But the spy ring was caught. One member was tortured to death, another committed suicide, two were executed, others served long prison terms.
Though the military censor in Israel hushed up discussion of the Dirty Business for years, the affair shook the Israeli political and military establishment repeatedly. Gibli said that Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon had approved the operation. Lavon said he hadn’t. He wanted to dismiss Gibli and the young director-general of the ministry, a certain Shimon Peres. (Why is it, I keep wondering, that every time I pull books off the shelf to look up a Machiavellian intrigue from Israel’s past, I find Shimon’s name?) Prime Minister Sharett supported the army against Lavon, who quit.
Six years later, citing new evidence, Lavon demanded his exoneration. The evidence included possible perjury and obstruction of justice by Gibli. Lavon launched a battle that tore apart the ruling Mapai party and eventually ended Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s career. Part of what undid Ben-Gurion was defending Peres and Moshe Dayan, who’d been military chief of staff at the time of the Dirty Business.
All right, both the politics and the spookery are so tangled that only old Mapai hacks with deep gravelly voices and deeper grudges can explain the business, and they never do so coherently. Let’s get back to Gibli. A few years before the Dirty Business, during the War of Independence, he was a judge in the kangaroo court that executed a certain Meir Tobianski, who’d purportedly spied for the enemy. Tobianski was later exonerated, which I suppose was a comfort to those who knew him, even if it didn’t help Tobianski much. Segev writes of Gibli:
He belonged to a generation of officers who came of age in the time of fighting for the state’s establishment, and thereafter when they were called upon to obey the rule of law, viewed it as an unnecessary encumbrance… Gibli was never punished for his role in [the Tobianski] affair: He was allowed to continue serving in the army, and doubtless learned thereby that the law is something that restricts other people.
In other words, if Gibli had been cashiered in ’48, he wouldn’t have been head of MI in ’54. The failure to make it clear to officers that they were bound by the law would deeply damage the state’s internal and foreign relations.
Segev is right about this. Gibli isn’t the strongest example. That dishonor surely belongs to Ariel Sharon (more on him here, and see my book, The Accidental Empire, on Sharon’s role in expelling thousands of Beduin from their homes in 1972).
The problem is that the attitude didn’t change when the generation of fighters who came of age before independence took off their uniforms. As evidence, I note just one affair, out of several that has been in the news this week: The Supreme Court intervened in the case of Lt. Col. Omri Burberg, who held a bound Palestinian while a soldier shot and wounded him with a rubber-coated bullet during demonstrations in the West Bank village of Na’alin. As Ha’aretz reports:
Burberg and the soldier, L., were charged with conduct unbecoming, and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi transferred Burberg to the armored corps training grounds at Tze’elim…
In response to the petition [by human-rights groups], Justice Ayala Procaccia issued a show-cause order giving the military advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit, three weeks to submit a detailed justification of his decision not to press more serious charges. She also issued an interim injunction delaying proceedings against the defendants until the court makes a final ruling…
[The petition] expressed outrage over statements made by [Chief of Staff Gabi] Ashkenazi regarding the likelihood that the officer would eventually resume the post from which he had been removed as a result of the incident.
Ashkenazi apparently feels that he can’t let a minor atrocity cost him a good officer. Besides the obvious disrespect for law and ethics that he is broadcasting, Ashkenazi is also wrong on practical grounds. A commander who sees no limits on his behavior is a ticking bomb. At an even higher rank, his ability to make disastrous decisions will be greater. Gibli is gone, but the business of cleaning up remains.