Ben Gurion giving a speech in front of his 'Mapai' party

On January 31st, 1961, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion resigned, after the disclosure of a foiled espionage operation in Egypt that took place in 1954.

In 1954, amid concerns that Britain was planning a withdrawal from the Suez Canal, and that move would have serious implications on Israeli trade, Israel launched Operation Susannah. The operation was a covert plan to discredit Egypt’s government, then newly headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Egypt under Nasser’s rule was clearly becoming the leading political enemy of Israel in the Arab world. The plan constructed by Israel’s security cabinet included having a spy network composed mostly of Egyptian Jews who spoke fluent Arabic and then bombing Western establishments in Egypt making it seem like attacks by the Nasser Regime.

The operation was foiled due to extremely poor planning, as well as a betrayal by at least one of the Israeli agents. Thirteen of the undisclosed amount of spies were arrested by the Egyptians. Two committed suicide while in prison, along with Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar who were hanged. Marzouk would claim before his execution that he was the one who organized the espionage circle and took full responsibility, for what seemed to be an act of martyrdom to save the others.

In Israel, the controversial operation was blamed on Pinchas Lavon, serving as Minister of Defense; he would ultimately resign from his position. A special committee was immediately set up by Prime Minister Moshe Sharett to investigate, however, the results were inconclusive.

The event resurfaced in 1960 when new information surfaced regarding two senior officers who had given false testimony regarding Lavon’s part during the probe in 1954. As a result, a new Knesset committee cleared Lavon of any wrongdoing.

Ben-Gurion, who had recently returned to the office of Prime Minister, seriously questioned the legality and objectivity of the new inquiry and made a decision to resign. In his letter of resignation, he stated that “My understanding of my obligations forbid me to bear responsibility for the Cabinet decision on December 25, as this would be incompatible with fundamental principles of justice and the basic laws of the State.”

After his resignation, Ben-Gurion was unable to form a new government and in March the Knesset was fully dissolved.  New elections were held shortly after in August 1961 with Mapai winning 42 seats and Ben-Gurion returning as Prime Minister once again. Ben Gurion would only fully resign from the political Zionist world in 1970, just three short years before his death.


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