Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Kennedy, Johnson and Maariv

We're working towards launching a new ISA website later this year. Among other preparations, a group of staff is working on a collection of the Cabinet transcripts from 1948-1967, which we hope to put online in its entirety. As we look at the documents, we'll try to put up some teasers, mostly on our Hebrew language blog; so if you read Hebrew and are interested in the classified discussions in Israel's Cabinet in its early years, feel free to follow us over there.

One of our staff blogged about the Cabinet discussions following Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. The first meeting was characterized by the same shock everyone else was in. A week later, however, on Dec. 1, 1963, Golda Meir reported at length. Golda was the Foreign Minister at the time, and it just so happened that she'd been in the US, and her colleagues were eager to hear her impressions.

Some of what she had to tell was generally known, such as her description of the funeral. Some was tinged by the Jewish Question. Golda and all the Jews she'd been in contact with were apprehensive that the assassin might turn out to have been Jewish: "It may not be rational that we were afraid he would turn out to be Jewish--why should he be Jewish and what difference would it make?--but that's the way it is. We were worried." Then she spoke about all the reasons to suspect there had been some sort of conspiracy, and was of course worried by the fact that Jack Ruby, Oswald's killer, was Jewish.

Then Golda went on to talk about Lyndon Johnson and Israel. She and Johnson knew each other from previous occasions, and once, when as Vice President he had been at some convention of diplomats, he had even invited her to lunch. She was proud to note that at Johnson's first reception after the funeral he had been very friendly to her. She then talked about her brief meeting with him the next day--and here she probably lowered her voice and told the rest of the Cabinet ministers she was about to divulge confidential information which they must keep to themselves. Johnson had told her that not only would he continue Kennedy's friendly policy towards Israel, if anything, he would improve the relations.

"That was in the paper," said Health Minister Shapira.
"It was in the newspaper?" replied Golda
"Yes. In Maariv," said Abba Eban.
"So you see, the leak didn't come from the Cabinet," noted Shapira.
"We've got unfair competition, it seems," concluded Zalman Aran, minister of education.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Horsing around in the Cabinet

On January 16, 1966, the Israeli Cabinet was discussing the upcoming budget (the budgetary year in those days was from April to March). Pinchas Sapir was the Finance Minister, and also--when he felt like it--a very stern fellow, who allowed no interruptions when he was talking. So he'd been lecturing for quite a while, and the Cabinet members had been siting docilely as Sapir had demanded, until at one point he mentioned that would have to talk to the governor of the Bank of Israel to ensure the BoI behaved as Sapir wanted. Zalman Aran, the minister of education, interjected that he had a personal connection to the topic of the interest rate. Sapir gruffly told him to shut up: "I requested that no-one interrupt me," but even Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, had had enough of being silent so he piled on: "We should decide that ministers can't have debts." Aran, glad that Sapir's decree of no talking had been suspended, agreed with the PM: "Yes, let's have an official decision about that!"

At which point Sapir reasserted his control--"I said no-one was to interrupt me"--and went on with his lecture about the budget.

Page 43 of the proceedings, here.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Weizmann-Feisal Agreement, January 1919: An Early Peace Agreement with the Arabs


During the First World War, Emir Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the Hashemite ruler of Hejaz (today Saudi Arabia) led a revolt against the Turks, made famous in the film "Lawrence of Arabia" (T.E. Lawrence). The revolt's British backers believed that Arab and Jewish nationalists could work together to build a new Middle East.
T.E. Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917
Photograph: Wikimedia
96 years ago this week, Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the World Zionist Organization, signed an agreement with Faisal for peace and co-operation between the two movements at the Paris Peace conference. Weizmann had already met Feisal in 1918, when he visited Palestine with a delegation of Zionists in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. You can see an account of their meeting by the British interpreter here.

On June 17, 1918, Weizmann wrote to his wife Vera in London about the romantic journey along the Red Sea past the "glowing mountains" of Sinai via Aqaba to the Anglo-Arab army in southeast Transjordan. Here he met Faisal: "the first real Arab nationalist I have met. He is a leader! He is quite intelligent and a very honest man, handsome as a picture. He is not interested in Palestine, but on the other hand he wants Damascus and the whole of northern Syria."

Weizmann and Feisal at their meeting in Ma'an , June 1918.
Photograph: Yad Chaim Weizmann, Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel
Faisal was afraid that the French would try to take over Syria. Weizmann noted that he was contemptuous of the Palestinians and did not regard them as Arabs. He saw Faisal as an alternative to the Palestinian leadership which was hostile to the Zionists' aspirations. Although Zionist colonization would benefit the Arab peasants, they wrongly believed that the Jews would take away their land. Weizmann did not realize the depth of Arab nationalism, which was in its early stages but would quickly gain ground.

In December 1918, Faisal and Weizmann met again in London. In the interim, Faisal had captured Damascus, which he hoped would be the capital of the Arab Kingdom promised by the British, but his regime there was fragile. In their talk on December 11, Weizmann promised help from the Zionist movement. They agreed to cooperate against the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided Palestine into British and French spheres of influence and gave Syria to the French. An agreement was drawn up, signed on January 3, 1919, in which Faisal expressed approval for the Balfour Declaration and Jewish settlement in Palestine. Other clauses ensured freedom of religion and Muslim control of the Holy Places sacred to Islam. In the original, held in the Central Zionist Archives, you can see the reservation in Arabic Faisal added in his own handwriting, saying: "If the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of January 4, addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement."

On February 6, 1919, Faisal appeared before the peace conference and demanded an Arab state, excluding Palestine from his demands. However, under pressure from Arab nationalists, he later retracted. In the summer of 1919, the first Syrian Congress proclaimed the Arabs' desire for a united independent Syria, including Palestine and Lebanon. In March 1920, Faisal was proclaimed King of Greater Syria. However, by July the French had driven him out of Damascus, and Syria became a French mandate. The British, who had just created the state of Iraq (a move leading to many current problems), compensated Faisal by making him its king. His brother Abdullah became Emir of Transjordan and later King of Jordan.

The documents and quotes shown here come from the Weizmann Archives in Rehovot and were published in the "Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann" series. In 1994, the Israel State Archives published some of them in Hebrew in its commemorative volume on Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How Unique Was Israel Granting Asylum to Political Escapees in South Africa? Very.

Six months ago, we published on the Israel State Archives site and on this blog a collection of documents covering the relations between Israel and South Africa. As noted then, while collecting and researching the different documents, we came upon an interesting letter, sent by the Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Dr. Chaim Yahil. In the letter, Yahil allows the legation in Pretoria to give asylum to political escapees, without prior authorization by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Israel State Archives employs former diplomats from Israel's Foreign Ministry. When we showed them this document, we were told that it is quite extraordinary, since this kind of authorization allowing a fugitive into an Israeli diplomatic mission is unprecedented.

We have found reinforcement of the uniqueness of Yahil's directive in another document, discovered while preparing the next project in our series of publications concerning Israel's relations with Africa during the 60's. In this document, we found that a previous request to provide political asylum in Israeli missions elsewhere had been rejected.

The request was made in a letter written by Israel's consul-general in Lisbon, Levy Alon, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We didn't find the original letter of Alon, but rather the response from his superiors, who categorically rejected his proposal. Because we lack his original request, we aren't entirely sure of Alon's intentions. Did he expect political opponents of the authoritarian government in Portugal to try and escape into the premises of Israel's consulate in Lisbon?

In any case, as we noted above, this letter rejecting Alon's proposal underscores the uniqueness of the relatively free hand given to the legation in South Africa, and the level of political risk Israel took on itself in allowing asylum there.

Here is the translation of the letter:
Jerusalem, October 15th, 1963

To: Consul-General, Lisbon
From: Deputy Director, West European Division
Subject: [right] of sanctuary in the mission
Your letter no. 103.1/6922 from July 22nd.

We passed the matter for clarification by the [Foreign Ministry's] senior staff, which decided to produce a standing order for Israel's diplomatic missions, in which it is stated that no political asylum should be allowed in any circumstances. This rule applies also to Jews. It is possible that in some extraordinary cases asylum will be permitted, pending on prior approval of the Ministry's senior staff. This is a summary of the order, and you will receive the full and accurate wording in a general circular that will be sent to all missions.

Therefore, your initiative served all [in the ministry].
Yours truly,
Nissim Yaish

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Missed Opportunity for Peace? Begin and Sadat Meet at Ismailia, 25 December 1977


 This week, when the Christian world celebrates Christmas, is also the anniversary of the second meeting between President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. During Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 many journalists asked if Begin would be invited to visit Cairo in return. Sadat avoided the question while Israel occupied Egyptian territory, but he offered to invite Begin to his home in Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, some 90 minutes from Cairo.

At the beginning of December, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Touhamy had met in Morocco to discuss a peace agreement (see the Mossad report on the meeting). Israel had agreed that Egyptian sovereignty over all of occupied Sinai should be restored. However Begin and Dayan wanted to keep the settlements Israel had built there and two air bases, Etzion, near Eilat, and Eitam, near El-Arish and the Rafiach Salient,  under Israeli control. Sadat refused.
In return for his gesture of visiting Jerusalem and offering Israel security within recognized borders, Sadat wanted the Israeli government to make a declaration that it would withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967 and seek a just solution to the Palestinian problem.  This declaration would enable him to make a peace treaty with Israel and to invite the other Arab states to join in. But the  government, especially Begin, who hoped to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, could not agree. Instead Begin drew up a plan for a temporary regime giving the Palestinian inhabitants autonomy and took it to Washington to be approved by US President Jimmy Carter. On 25 December Begin, together with Dayan, Defence Minister Ezer Weizman and a group of advisers and aides, went to Ismailiya to present the plan to Sadat. The records of their meetings are in the Israel State Archives.
 
The atmosphere at the talks was friendly. Sadat was celebrating his birthday and he welcomed the delegation to Egypt "perhaps the first time we sit together since Moses crossed the waters not very far from here. We sit together to tell the whole world that we are working for peace and that we shall establish peace." Begin wished him as many years as Moses lived - to the age of 120. He too was sure that the two nations would make peace. They had already agreed to set up a political and a military working committee.
 

Begin and Sadat after their first meeting in Ismailia
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office

But then Begin began to outline Israel's peace proposals and the autonomy plan. He explained that the Palestinian Arabs would enjoy self rule and the Palestinian Jews security. His long explanation tired Sadat, who had no patience for details. Begin, attacked by the right for presenting a plan which might become the basis for a Palestinian state, felt he was making a great concession. But it did not meet Sadat's needs.
 
The Egyptians proposed a joint declaration on Israeli withdrawal, on the right of all states, including Israel, to sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, and on a just solution for the Palestinians based on self-determination. After the legal experts had got together, Begin and Sadat met again. You can see in the record of their meeting how hard it was for each leader to understand the other's background and thinking: Begin, who was so deeply marked by his relatives' death in the Holocaust and by fear of Israel's destruction by the Arabs; Sadat, by his fight for Egypt's independence from colonial rule. He said that for himself, Israel and Egypt could reach a bilateral agreement. "But I cannot do it because Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. Yes, that is right. Egypt has always been the leader." 
 
(Dayan at Ismailia with Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammed Ibrahim Kamel (on the right
(and Abd-el Meguid, ambassador to the U.N. (centre
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office
 Begin refused to mention self-determination, which to him meant a Palestinian state ruled by the PLO, then a Soviet- backed terrorist organization. Sadat's Foreign Ministry advisers refused to back down, the meeting was a failure and the two sides issued separate statements. Dayan felt that an opportunity had been missed. But some of the formulations reached at Ismailia later formed the basis for the Camp David agreements. Begin finally visited Cairo in  April 1979, after the signing of the peace treaty.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Leo Lessman's War Diary: The Great War Turns Into a Trench War

In our last post, we presented Leo Lessmann, the son of a Jewish publisher from Hamburg who joined the Imperial German Army at the beginning of the First World War. We showed the first photos from his diary, which captured his enlistment to the army during that time.

Lessmann's unit, Field Artillery Regiment no. 103 (FAR 103), was part of the main German effort in the west, and according to Lessmann's diary, his unit moved through Belgium and northern France. The regiment took part in the Battle of Le Cateau, the second large battle between the German army and the British expeditionary force (BEF) to France. The BEF--the first substantial British army sent to fight in Europe since the Napoleonic wars--landed in France on August 10, 1914, and encountered the advancing German army by the town of Mons, Belgium on August 23. The British army was a small force, and made up of long-serving professional soldiers who specialized in accurate marksmanship, unlike the conscripts in the German and French armies. The British 'Tommies' inflicted heavy losses on the German army, but ultimately retreated before the overwhelming German artillery fire. Two days later, the British commander Sir Horace Smith-Dorien (whose son was killed in the King David hotel bombing on July 1946, as we recounted previously) chose to strike back at the German army and prevented the Germans from chasing the retreating BEF.

The German army continued its advance into northern France, aiming to encircle the French army and the BEF, but the commander of the northern German Army, General von Kluck, changed the direction of his army's movement and turned to aid the army to his south. With that move, he exposed his flank to a French counterattack. The French and the British then struck on September 5 in the Battle of the Marne (famed for the use of Parisian taxis to transport thousands of soldiers to the front) and pushed the German army back. The Germans retreated towards the river Aisne, east of Paris, took the high ground in the area and began digging trenches. At the same time, the "race to the sea" began – a series of attacks aimed to outflank the opposing armies that went from north of Paris to the northern districts of France (Picardy and Nord-Pas de Calais), and Flanders in Belgium. The attacks were repulsed and a line of trenches set up, extending from the North Sea to the border with Switzerland.
Map of the "Race to the Sea" (Wikipedia)
Leo Lessmann's unit participated in the battles on the river Aisne and later in battles in Picardy, especially by the town of Arras. After the failure of their initial maneuvers, and as hope for a quick victory faded, both sides began to entrench themselves. It was a natural reaction to the massive firepower displayed in the war – a combination of fast shooting, long range artillery in combination with machine guns with a rate of fire of 400-500 rounds per minute, and rifles with an effective range of 400 meters at least (here's an excellent short clip by historian Dan Snow, produced by the BBC, on the trenches in WWI). . This wasn't a new phenomenon. Over the years, as firepower intensified and effective rifle ranges grew, soldiers dug into the ground in search of shelter and as a means of defense. Trenches were also for offensive purposes, being a relatively safe place for staging the troops before the assault, as gathering in the open was inconceivable. As the war carried on, the trench systems became more complex and more fortified – especially from the German side, which was on the defensive most of the war on the western front. The trenches were the definitive symbol of the war and drew the lines of the battlefield (literally!) for years.

Here are some of the photos in Leo Lessmann's diary:

Leo Lessmann (in the center) with infantry soldiers in a trench by Beaurains, a village south of Arras.
German soldiers digging a trench

An artillery piece, part of Lessmann's regiment (Lessmann is sitting on the right side, wearing an officers hat with a visor), stationed by the village of Beaurains

Sunday, November 16, 2014

World War I Centenary: Leo Lessmann's War Diary

2014 marks the centenary year of the start of World War I, the war that changed the 20th century and still leaves its mark on our own days. (For example, recall that ISIL declared the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement when it abolished the border between Syria and Iraq.) As promised, we will try to present different collections from the Israel State Archives connected to WWI. Here is a unique and fascinating one: Leo Lessmanns's war diary. 

Leo I. Lessmann was born in 1891 to a well-to-do Jewish family in Hamburg. His father was the publisher of the Jewish weekly "Israelitisches Familienblatt" (the Jewish family paper). Leo volunteered for a one-year service in the Imperial German Army, a special voluntary short-term form of active military service open for enlistees up to the age of 25 (the usual term of service was 2 years), created for high school graduates for the purpose of building a pool of suitable men for reserve officers.

On August 2, 1914, Lessmann, just a day after war was declared, volunteered to serve, as did millions of other young men across Europe. He served in a field artillery regiment. His unit had 77mm cannons, and their usual assignment was supporting infantry units on the frontline. Lessmann served through all 4 years of the war, in the western front opposite the French and British armies.

After the war, Lessmann returned to Hamburg and joined his father's publishing business. In 1937, he compiled an impressive war diary to which he added photos he took during the war, as well as letters, maps, newspaper cuttings and a printed description of his military service during the war. His daughter, Mrs. Eva Ein-Dor, deposited her father's diary at Israel's state archives and allowed us to publish photos from it. 

Two years ago, Tom Segev published in Ha'aretz a short but fascinating article on the diary (you can see it here).

The first two photos we chose to publish (more to come in the weeks ahead) show Lessmann on the day he enlisted to serve in the Great War. Lessmann joined his reserve unit, got a crew-cut haircut and received his uniform and equipment. Soon, Lessmann's unit joined the German army's great push through Belgium, in what is known today as the "Schlieffen plan" –named after its planner, chief of Imperial German General staff General Alfred von Schlieffen. The plan's intent was to outflank the French army, stationed on the French-German border, from Belgium, defeating and destroying it swiftly, with a fast movement of the entire German army to the east to defeat the Russian army.  
Leo Lessmann in Imperial German army uniform. The captions says "first time in Feldgrau (the nickname of the color of the uniform, a combination of green and gray).

Caption: Shaven from Langenweddingen - my old friend from my active service and me. (Langenweddingen is by the city of Magdeburg in east Germany, and situated east of Hanover. Most likely it housed the recruitment depot of Lessmann's reserve unit.)