Ben-Gurion Resigns over Lavon Affair

January 31, 1961

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion resigns, setting the stage for new elections in the summer of 1961.

Ben-Gurion’s resignation was tied to a botched Israeli operation in 1954.  In that year, concerned that Great Britain’s planned withdrawal from the Suez Canal would have a negative impact on Israeli trade, Israel launched Operation Susannah, a secret plan to discredit Egypt’s government, then headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser.Nasser’s Egypt was clearly becoming Israel’s leading political nemesis in the Arab world. The plan included  having a spy network comprised mostly of Egyptian Jews, bomb Western targets and make it appear  as though Egypt was behind the bombings.

The operation was foiled by poor planning as well as a betrayal by one of the operators. Thirteen of the spies were arrested by the Egyptians. Two committed suicide and Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar were hanged. Marzouk claimed that he had organized the ring and took full responsibility, apparently to reduce the guilt of the others, most of whom were given prison sentences.

In Israel, the episode was blamed on Pinchas Lavon (shown in the photo) who was then serving as Defense Minister, and who ultimately resigned. A special committee was set up by then Prime Minister Moshe Sharett to investigate what had gone wrong but its results were inconclusive.

The event resurfaced in 1960 when new information surfaced that two senior officers had given false testimony implicating Lavon in 1954. As a result, a new committee cleared Lavon of any wrongdoing. Ben-Gurion, who had returned to the office of Prime Minister, questioned the legality and objectivity of the new inquiry and resigned. In his letter of resignation, he wrote, “My understanding of my obligations forbid me to bear responsibility for the Cabinet decision on December 25 (the decision to accept the report that exonerated Lavon), as this would be incompatible with fundamental principles of justice and the basic laws of the State.”

Ben-Gurion was unable to form a new government and in March the Knesset was dissolved.  New elections were held in August 1961 with Mapai winning 42 seats and Ben-Gurion returning as Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion would remain Prime Minister until 1963 and leave political life in 1970 after half a century of Zionist and Israeli leadership.