Col. Gibli, He Dead. (Dirty business lives on.)

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

5 thoughts on “Col. Gibli, He Dead. (Dirty business lives on.)

  1. You can add to Sharon’ s list of crimes, in addition to his expulsion of Beduins in the Negev, his expulsion of thousands of Jews from Gush Katif without getting any public mandate to carry it out, in direct contradiction to his election promises and his promise to honor the results of the Likud party referendum which he called and then lost. It’s odd you didn’t mention this crime of Sharon’s, only the expulsion of the Beduin.

    Funny, Olmert justified turning the police loose on mostly teenagers passively protesting the destruction of Amona and having them break their heads, crippling some for life, on the fact that they were “lawbreakers” involved in an illegal demonstration. I certainly hope that Olmert himself will face a similar punishment when he is convicted of breaking the law, as he has done repeatedly.

    So you see, Israeli attitudes towards “lawbreaking” are selective. If a politician or a person we like breaks the law, we look the other way. If we don’t like the person or his policies, we are filled with “righteous indignation”.

  2. Y, I think the difference is that the settlements (I assume in Gaza as I don’t know them all by name) were considered illegal by the government of Israel since the late 60’s and are ipso facto illegitimate to anyone with even the most cursory understanding of international law.

    The two cases are not at all symmetrical. I can’t believe that you really don’t see the difference between a country displacing the native inhabitants of of another to make way for it’s own people’s lebensraum versus giving back the usurped land and dismantling what were the essential instruments for carrying out said usurpation.

    There’s simply no moral equivalence here.

  3. Joe-
    Jews have been living CONTINUOUSLY in the Gaza area for over 2000 years. The largest synagogue mosaic floor (dating from about 1600 years ago) ever found in the country is in Gaza City. Jews lived in Gaza city up until 1936 when they were driven out by Arab terror. The land of the Kfar Darom settlment was purchased around 1929. Jews have as much right to live in Gaza as they do in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
    Jews are as much “native inhabitants” of the country as Arabs, if not more so.

  4. Hi, Joe. By combining “cursory knowledge” of international law and utter ignorance of the process used to create the Gaza settlements, you tumble into an unworthy and groundless tirade (e.g., fallacious use of the pregnant term “Lebensraum”). Israel’s claim to sovereignty in Gaza is (or, perhaps, *was*, by Israel’s own ill-advised actions) the strongest claim around absent a treaty to the contrary. Such a claim includes the right to settle and refutes the argument that the Geneva Convention precludes settlement.

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